Modern history


Germany’s Formula for War

ONE AFTERNOON in June of 1932, an open car appeared at a Munich hotel to pick up two officials of I. G. Farben, the huge German chemical combine. The men—one a chemist, the other a public relations man—were driven to the private apartment of Adolf Hitler atPrinzregentenplatz. Hitler had not yet come to power as Chancellor of Germany, but he was the leader of the National Socialist party, which held almost 20 percent of the seats in the Reichstag and looked likely to increase significantly its seats in the election due the following month.

The men from I. G. Farben had sought out the would-be Führer in order to try to bring an end to the continuing Nazi press campaign against their company. The Nazis railed against I. G. Farben as an exploitative tool of “international financial lords” and “money-mighty Jews,” and attacked the company for the fact that Jews occupied some senior positions. They even caricatured the company as “Isadore G. Farben.” The Nazis also criticized it for pursuing its expensive project to manufacture liquid fuels from coal—otherwise known as synthetic fuels—and for the tariff protection it had obtained for the project from the government. And that pointed to a second problem. I. G. Farben had made a very large financial commitment to synthetic fuels, but it appeared by 1932 that the project could never be profitable without continued government tariff protection and other support. The company’s main argument was that a synthetic fuels industry would cut Germany’s dependence on foreign oil and thus reduce the acute pressure on the country’s foreign exchange. The two I. G. Farben representatives hoped to convert Hitler to their point of view.

Hitler himself was late for the meeting, having just returned from an electoral campaign trip. He intended to give the two I. G. Farben officials only a half hour, but he became so engrossed in the discussion that he spent two and a half hours with them. Mesmerized by his own visions, Hitler did much of the talking, lecturing and declaiming on his plans to motorize Germany and build new highways. But he also asked technical questions about synthetic fuels, and he assured the two men that such fuels fit perfectly with his overall plans for a new Germany. “Today,” he told them, “an economy without oil is inconceivable in a Germany which wishes to remain politically independent. Therefore, German motor fuel must become a reality, even if this entails sacrifices. Therefore, it is urgently necessary that the hydrogenation of coal be continued.” He strongly endorsed the synthetic fuels effort. He also promised to halt the press campaign against I. G. Farben and to keep the tariff protection for synthetic fuels in place once the Nazis came to power. For its part, I. G. Farben—then or later—promised to deliver what the Nazis wanted: campaign contributions. When the I. G. Farben officials reported back on their conversation with Hitler, the chairman of the company said, “Well, this man seems to be more reasonable than I had thought.”1

Hitler had good cause to appear reasonable. A successful synthetic fuels program, he had quickly grasped, could prove very valuable, perhaps essential, to his overall objectives for a resurgent and dominant Germany. One of the major obstacles to the achievement of that goal, he knew, was Germany’s dependence on imported raw materials—and oil in particular. Domestic petroleum production was tiny; imports, correspondingly high. Moreover, much of the imported oil came from the Western Hemisphere.

Germany’s remarkable economic growth over the preceding half century had been based largely on its own plentiful energy source—coal. Whereas in the late 1930s coal provided just about half of the United States’ total energy, it supplied 90 percent of Germany’s energy—while oil accounted for only about 5 percent. But already in 1932, Hitler was planning for the future, and oil would be essential to his ambitions. He became Chancellor in January 1933 and then, over the next year and a half, seized complete power. He wasted no time in launching a motorcar campaign that he would hail as “a turning point in the history of German motor traffic.” Autobahns, limited-access highways without speed limits, were to span the country, and in 1934 planning began for a new type of vehicle. It was called “the people’s car,” the Volkswagen.

But these were but pieces of his grand plan, which was to subordinate all of Europe to the Nazi Reich—and to himself. To that end, he quickly began to regiment the economy, harness big business to the state, and build the Nazi war machine—including bombers and fighter planes, tanks and trucks, all of which required oil. And the synthetic fuels on which I. G. Farben was working were to be of decisive importance.2

The Chemical Solution

Pioneering work on the extraction of synthetic fuels from coal had actually begun in Germany before the First World War. The country was then already acknowledged as the world’s leader in chemistry. In 1913, the German chemist Friedrich Bergius first succeeded in extracting a liquid from coal in a process that became known as hydrogenation. Large amounts of hydrogen were added to coal under high temperatures and high pressure in the presence of a catalyst. The end product was a high-grade liquid fuel. A competing German process, Fischer-Tropsch, was detailed a decade later, in the mid-1920s. Here, coal molecules were broken down under steam into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which, in turn, were made to react together, resulting in the production of a synthetic oil. The Bergius hydrogenation process was deemed the better of the two. Among other things, it could produce aviation fuel, which Fischer-Tropsch could not. In addition, I. G. Farben, which acquired the patent rights in 1926 to the Bergius process, was politically more powerful than the sponsors of Fischer-Tropsch.

I. G. Farben became interested in synthetic fuels in the 1920s because of the same predictions of the imminent exhaustion of the world’s conventional petroleum supplies that were stimulating the great oil exploration drive around the world. The government provided support because the increasing demand for foreign oil was causing a hemorrhage of vital and scarce foreign exchange. A pilot plant was built at I. G.’s Leuna works, with initial production beginning in 1927. At the same time, I. G. Farben was busy seeking potential partners in other countries. After negotiations with a leading British chemical group fell through, I. G. Farben found a much more important potential partner—Standard Oil of New Jersey.3

At that time, Standard was midway in its strategic transformation from refiner to integrated oil company, well-supplied with its own crude, both in the United States and abroad. It had also been exploring alternatives to crude oil as a source of liquid fuels; as early as 1921, it had purchased twenty-two thousand acres in Colorado with the hope of finding a commercially successful method for extracting oil from shale. But Standard had been dissatisfied with the results; the production of one barrel of synthetic oil from shale required a ton of rock, and the economics were extremely unattractive.

Frank Howard, the head of research at Standard, visited I. G.’s Leuna works in 1926. He was so impressed that he immediately fired off a telegram to Standard’s president, Walter Teagle, then visiting in Paris. “Based upon observations and discussions today, I think that this matter is the most important which has ever faced the company since the dissolution,” wired Howard. “This means absolutely the independence of Europe in the matter of gasoline supply.” Teagle himself, alarmed about the possibility of losing European markets to the new synthetic oil, hurried to Leuna. The research and production facilities awed him. “I had not known what research meant until I saw it,” he later said. “We were babies compared to the work I saw.”

Teagle, Howard, and other Standard executives hurriedly gathered at a hotel room in Heidelberg, ten miles from the I. G. Farben works. They concluded, Howard later recalled, that the hydrogenation process might be “more significant than any technical factor ever introduced into the oil industry up to this time.” Here, in the laboratories of I. G. Farben, was a clear threat to Standard’s business. “Although hydrogenation of coal probably could never compete on an economic basis with crude oil,” said Howard, “‘the nationalistic factor’ would lead to hydrogenation’s being made the foundation of a protected manufacturing industry in many countries willing to pay the price.” Thus, markets could be closed to imported crude oil and refined products; Standard could hardly afford not to become involved.

An initial agreement was therefore reached with I. G. Farben, which allowed Standard to build a hydrogenation plant in Louisiana. But by this time, the world oil shortage was beginning to turn into a surplus, and the American company’s interest shifted. Hydrogenation could also be used on crude oil, to increase the gasoline yield. Thus, the new plant in Louisiana would experimentally apply the process not to coal, but to oil, in order to squeeze more gasoline out of each barrel of petroleum.

In 1929, the two companies struck a broader agreement. Standard would have the patent rights to hydrogenation outside Germany. In exchange, I. G. Farben received 2 percent of Standard’s stock—546,000 shares—valued at $35 million. Each company agreed to stay out of the other’s main fields of activity. As a Standard official put it, “The I. G. are going to stay out of the oil business—and we are going to stay out of the chemical business.” The next step came in 1930, with the establishment of a joint company to share developments in the “oil-chemical” field. Overall, a good deal of technical knowledge was flowing to Standard.4

In 1931, German science and, in particular, hydrogenation received the highest accolade: Bergius, the inventor of the hydrogenation technique, and Carl Bosch, the chairman of I. G. Farben, shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Yet, while the project at Leuna was by then producing at a rate of two thousand barrels per day, it was floundering badly and was in deep financial trouble. Development was proving to be more difficult and much more expensive than anticipated. At the same time, the oil surplus, with the new discoveries in East Texas, had turned into an overwhelming global glut. The resulting collapse in world oil prices made the synthetic fuel effort at Leuna decidedly uneconomical, and I. G. Farben feared that the project might never turn a profit. The cost of producing a liter of Leunabenzin, as the fuel was called, was up to ten times the price per gallon at which gasoline was put onto tankers in the Gulf of Mexico bound for Germany. Some I. G. Farben executives said the whole project should be abandoned. The sole reason to keep it going, others replied, was that the costs of shutting it down would be greater than the costs of continuing.

The only real hope for keeping the synthetic fuels project alive, in the midst of the Great Depression, was with some kind of state support or bail-out. The tariff protection from the pre-Hitler Brüning government was not enough. The new Nazi regime was willing to go much further and guarantee prices and markets to I. G. Farben—so long as the company promised to increase substantially its production of synthetic fuels. Even that was not enough, for hydrogenation was still an infant technology. It needed both further development and additional political patronage in the Third Reich. I. G. Farben won support from the Air Force, the Luftwaffe, by proving that it could develop a high-quality aviation gasoline. The German Army, the Wehrmacht, also lobbied for an expanded commitment to a domestic synthetic fuels industry, arguing that Germany’s own current supplies would be woefully inadequate to the requirements of the new type of warfare that it was planning.5

Girding for War

Two further developments demonstrated to Hitler and his entourage both the dangers of depending upon foreign oil and the concurrent need to develop Germany’s own supply. The first was by example. In October 1935, Italy invaded the East African country of Ethiopia, then better known as Abyssinia, which shared uneasy and poorly demarcated borders with adjacent colonies of Italy. Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, dreamed of creating a great empire to befit his imperial Roman pretensions, and he began with the attack on Ethiopia. Forthwith, the League of Nations condemned the invasion, imposed some economic sanctions, and considered placing an embargo on oil exports to Italy. The Roosevelt Administration gave indications that the United States, though not a League member, might find a way to cooperate with such an embargo. Mussolini well knew that a shut-off of petroleum supplies would paralyze the Italian military. While his armies advanced, throwing poison gas against the hapless Ethiopians, he resorted to every form of bluff and bluster to intimidate the League. Sanctions, he said, could well be regarded as an act of war. A leading proponent of the oil sanctions was the British Minister for the League, Anthony Eden, who dismissed the threat; Mussolini, he said, would not risk a “mad-dog act” and “has never struck me as the kind of person who would commit suicide.” But Mussolini found a willing ally in the French Prime Minister, the cunning Pierre Laval, who cleverly subverted the oil sanctions movement at the moment when it was closest to success.

By the spring of 1936, Mussolini’s forces had conquered Ethiopia, the King of Italy had added “Emperor of Ethiopia” to his title, and the entire sanctions movement had collapsed. The oil embargo was never tested, because it was never applied. Mussolini himself later confided to Hitler: “If the League of Nations had followed Eden’s advice on the Abyssinian dispute, and had extended economic sanctions to oil, I would have had to withdraw from Abyssinia within a week. That would have been an incalculable disaster for me!” Hitler took the lesson of dependence most seriously.

The second lesson struck closer to home. The Nazi regime was committed to “recovering” the domestic German market from Standard Oil, Shell, and the other foreign companies. But even worse, the hated Bolsheviks owned a large chain of gasoline stations through which they sold the oil products they provided Germany. The Nazi government pushed a German gasoline marketeer to acquire the Soviet chain, which it did in 1935. The aim was to clear out “a wasp’s nest.” For a time, though unhappily, the Soviets continued to supply the amount of oil previously sold through its distribution system. But then, in February 1936 they abruptly stopped deliveries. The reason given was “difficulties with foreign payments.” The deliveries did not resume. And that, too, was a warning to Hitler about the dangers of dependence.

Just at this time, in the middle of February 1936—as the League still debated oil sanctions—the annual German motor show in Berlin was opened by Hitler, who, the New York Times observed, “is believed to reel off a higher annual motor mileage than any other ruler or head of State.” Hitler took the occasion to announce that Germany “had effectively solved the problem of producing synthetic gasoline.” This achievement, he pointedly declared, “possessed political significance.” The question of foreign supplies and sanctions was very much on Hitler’s mind. For he was on the eve of a critical move. The next month, March 1936, he boldly remilitarized the Rhineland, on the border with France, in violation of treaty agreements. It was the first time that he flexed his muscles on the international front, taking what afterward he was to call his gravest risk—the forty-eight hours that were “the most nerve-racking in my life.” He waited to be challenged, but the Western powers did nothing to stop him. The gamble had paid off. The pattern was to be repeated.6

Later in 1936, Hitler took decisive steps to gird the German state so that it would be prepared for war by the target date of 1940. He inaugurated his Four-Year Plan, which, among other things, aimed to reduce dependence on foreign oil through new technology and chemistry. “German fuel production must now be developed with the utmost speed,” he said in establishing the plan. “This task must be handled and executed with the same determination as the waging of a war, since on its solution depends the future conduct of the war.” He added that “the production cost of these raw materials” was of “no importance.”

The synthetic fuels industry, with a central place in the overall plan, was supposed to expand output almost sixfold. The program received major financial support, and vast amounts of steel and labor were requisitioned to construct the sprawling industrial establishments required for conversion. Each plant was a huge engineering undertaking, spread over acres, that depended on great industrial companies—in full partnership with the Nazi state. I. G. Farben led the way, adapting itself to the Nazi ideology. By 1937–38, it was no longer an independent company, but rather an industrial arm of the German state, and fully Nazi-fied. All Jewish officials had been removed, including the third of the supervisory board who were Jews. The anti-Nazi chairman of the managing board, Carl Bosch, the man who had made the deal with Standard Oil, was pushed aside, while most of the other members of the managing board who did not already belong to the Nazi party fell all over each other in their rush to sign up.

While the ambitious promises of the Four-Year Plan proved far too grandiose, Germany nevertheless did build up a very substantial synthetic fuel industry. By September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War in Europe, fourteen hydrogenation plants were in full operation, with six more under construction. By 1940, synthetic fuel output had increased drastically—72,000 barrels per day, accounting for 46 percent of total oil supply. But the synthetic fuels were even more significant when viewed in terms of military needs. Hydrogenation, the Bergius process, provided some 95 percent of Germany’s total aviation gasoline. Without those synthetic fuels, the Luftwaffe could not have taken to the air.

Despite the strength of his military machine, and with a growing supply of synthetic fuels at his disposal, oil was never far from Hitler’s mind. Indeed, that concern had helped shape his basic strategic approach to war, which was based on the blitzkrieg, or “lightning war”—fierce but short battles with concentrated mechanized forces that would lead to decisive victory before petroleum supply problems could develop. Initially, the strategy worked astonishingly well, not only in Poland in 1939, but also in the spring of 1940, as Hitler’s forces overran Norway, the Low Countries, and France with surprising ease. The campaign in the West actually improved Germany’s oil position, for German troops captured oil stocks considerably in excess of the fuel they had expended in the invasions. Even though Hitler’s subsequent attempts to subdue the British Isles through massive aerial bombardment had failed by the fall of 1940, Germany seemed on the verge of dominating Europe. It had also fallen into the habit of thinking that victory was cheap. So when Hitler turned his sights east toward his next objective, he envisioned another easy victory. The target was the Soviet Union.7

The Russian Campaign: “My Generals Know Nothing About the Economic Aspects of War”

Many factors shaped Germany’s decision to go to war with the Soviet Union: Hitler’s deep-seated hatred of Bolshevism (its eradication, he said, was his “life’s mission”); his personal enmity for Stalin; his contempt for the Slavs, whom he regarded as “little worms”; his desire to dominate completely the Eurasian land mass; and his drive for glory. In addition, when he looked East, he saw lebensraum (“living space”) for the Thousand-Year Reich, his new German empire. Moreover, despite Stalin’s almost pathetic eagerness to live up to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and avoid provoking Hitler, the German dictator suspected a secret deal between Britain and the Soviet Union. How else to explain England’s refusal to capitulate in 1940 when its cause seemed so obviously lost? Amid all else, there was also the issue of oil.

From the very start, the capture of Baku and the other Caucasian oil fields was central to Hitler’s concept of his Russian campaign. “In the economic field,” one historian has written, “Hitler’s obsession was oil.” To Hitler, it was the vital commodity of the industrial age and for economic power. He read about it, he talked about it, he knew the history of the world’s oil fields. If the oil of the Caucasus—along with the “black earth,” the farmlands of the Ukraine—could be brought into the German empire, then Hitler’s New Order would have within its borders the resources to make it invulnerable. In that conception, there was a striking similarity to the Japanese drive to encapsulate the resources of the East Indies and Southeast Asia within its empire, an ambition also powered by the belief that such a resource base would make it impregnable. Albert Speer, the German Minister for Armaments and War Production, said at his interrogation in May 1945, “the need for oil certainly was a prime motive” in the decision to invade Russia.8

Hitler also saw Soviet might as a permanent threat to the Ploesti oil fields of Rumania, Europe’s largest source of petroleum production outside the Soviet Union. They had been a major German objective in the First World War. Now, Rumania was a German ally, and Germany had become heavily dependent upon Ploesti, which provided 58 percent of Germany’s total imports in 1940. Oil shipments from the Soviet Union had resumed with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, and in 1940, they accounted for another third of Germany’s oil imports, leading one senior Nazi to describe them as a “substantial prop to the German war economy.” In June 1940 the Soviet Union used the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact as justification to seize a significant part of northeastern Rumania, which put Russian troops all too close to the Ploesti oil fields for Hitler’s taste. “The life of the Axis depends on those oilfields,” he told Mussolini. An attack on Russia would guarantee the security of Ploesti.

The conquest of Russia would, of course, also make available a far grander prize: the oil resources of the Caucasus—Maikop, Grozny, and Baku itself. To support his plans, Hitler propounded his own bizarre calculations: that the number of German casualties in a war with Russia would be no greater than the number of workers tied up in the synthetic fuel industry. So there was no reason not to go ahead.

In December 1940 Hitler issued Directive Number 21—Operation Barbarossa—ordering that preparations begin for an invasion of the Soviet Union. The Germans took care to give no public sign of displeasure to their Russian friend and, indeed, went out of their way to engage in an elaborate charade of deception and disinformation to lull Stalin into disbelief that the Germans might be contemplating such a strike. Warnings of the impending invasion came from many sources—Americans, British, other governments, his own spies—but Stalin resolutely refused to believe them. Scarcely hours before the invasion, a dedicated German communist defected from a German Army unit and slipped over to the Soviets with word of what was about to happen. Stalin suspected a trick and ordered the man shot.9

In the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, Russian freight trains were lumbering slowly westward along railway tracks in the Soviet Union, carrying oil and other raw materials destined for Germany. Just after 3:00 A.M. the German Army, three million men strong, with 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000 horses, struck along a wide front. The German onslaught caught the Soviet Union completely off guard and put Stalin into a nervous collapse that lasted several days. The Germans thought the attack would be a repetition of the blitzkrieg that had swept so successfully across Poland, the Low Countries, France, Yugoslavia, and most recently Greece. It would all be over in six or eight weeks, or ten at the most.

Hitler’s boast about the Russian campaign, that “we’ll kick the door in and the house will fall down,” seemed amply borne out in the first weeks of the campaign. Initially, the Germans moved even faster than they had expected, driving back the disorganized Soviet forces. Victory appeared almost at hand, save for some mopping up. Yet there were soon some preliminary signs that the Germans were stretching themselves. They had seriously miscalculated their supply needs, including the need for fuel. On the bad Russian roads and difficult terrain, vehicles burned considerably more fuel than anticipated, sometimes twice as much. The larger vehicles, which sank into the unsurfaced roads and could not move, had to be replaced with small Russian wagons drawn by horses. But warnings about looming fuel shortages were ignored in the initial euphoria of early victories.10

In August, German generals sought Hitler’s permission to make Moscow the prime target. Hitler refused. “The most important aim to be achieved before the onset of winter is not to capture Moscow,” said his directive of August 21, “but to seize the Crimea and the industrial and coal region on the Donets, and to cut off the Russian oil supply from the Caucasus area.” The Wehrmacht had to reach Baku. As for the Crimea, Hitler described it as “that Soviet aircraft carrier for attacking the Rumanian oil fields.” To the arguments of his generals, he responded with what would become one of his favorite maxims—“My generals know nothing about the economic aspects of war.” Intoxicated by conquest, Hitler was already dreaming aloud about the vast autobahn he would build from Trondheim, in Norway, to the Crimea, which would then become Germany’s Riviera. And, he said, “the Volga will be our Mississippi.”

Later on, Hitler changed his mind, and put Moscow back at the top of his objectives. But critical time had been lost. As a result, while the Germans did manage to reach the outskirts of Moscow, just twenty miles from the Kremlin, they did not do so until the end of autumn 1941. There they bogged down in the mud and snow of fast-approaching winter. The shortages of oil and other essential supplies finally caught up with them. “We have reached the end of our resources of personnel and material,” the Quartermaster General said on November 27. Then on December 5 and 6, General Yuri Zhukhov launched the first successful Soviet counterattack, thus preventing the Germans from moving any further and tying them down for the winter.

Nor were the German troops able to get to the Caucasus. The six to eight to ten weeks had already turned into months, and the Germans were now stalemated by winter. They had vastly underestimated the space over which their supply lines would have to stretch; they had no less underestimated the reserves of Soviet manpower—and the capacity of Soviet soldiers and citizens alike to tolerate hardship and deprivation. The numbers were beyond comprehension; six to eight million Soviet soldiers were killed or captured in the first year of war, and still new men were thrown into battle. In addition, the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor and move into Southeast Asia, rather than attack the Soviet Union, allowed Stalin to transfer his crack Siberian divisions westward, to the German front.11

Operation Blau

In the early months of 1942, Berlin was making plans for another great offensive in Russia, Operation Blau. The oil of the Caucasus was its main objective, and from there, on to the oil fields in Iran and Iraq and then on to India. Hitler’s economic experts had told him that Germany could not continue the war effort without access to Russian oil, and Hitler fully agreed. At the same time, he wanted to strike at the heart of the Russian war economy. Deprived of fuel for its military units and for agriculture, Russia would not be able to stay in the war. Hitler was sure that the Soviet Union would expend its last reserves of manpower to defend the oil fields, and then victory would be his. With considerable confidence, Germany assembled a Technical Oil Brigade, eventually fifteen thousand men strong, with the charge of rehabilitating and running the Russian oil industry. The only thing standing in the way of Germany’s exploitation of Russian oil was the requirement to capture it.

By late July 1942 the German armies seemed well on the way to that goal, with the conquest of the city of Rostov and the cutting of the oil pipeline from the Caucasus. On August 9, they reached Maikop, the most westerly of the Caucasian oil centers—but a small one, with an output equivalent under normal circumstances to only a tenth of that of Baku. Moreover, before withdrawing from Maikop, the Russians had so thoroughly destroyed the oil fields and supplies and equipment, right down to the small tools in the workshops, that by January 1943 the Germans were able to eke out no more than seventy barrels per day there.

Still, the Germans drove on, now thousands of miles from their homeland and their supply centers. In mid-August, German mountain troops planted the swastika at the summit of Mount Elbrus, the highest point in the Caucasus and in Europe. But the German war machine was stopped before it could reach its objectives. Its armies were blocked by mountain passes that could be defended, given time, and stymied further by their own shortage of fuel, which provided that time. In order to fight Russia, the German forces required petroleum resources on a grand scale, but they far outran their supply lines and lost their advantages of speed and surprise. The irony of Operation Blau was that the Germans ran short of oil in their quest for oil.12

The Germans had captured Russian oil supplies as they had done with French supplies, but this time to no avail, for Russian tanks ran on diesel, which was useless to the German panzer units, which ran on gasoline. Panzer divisions were sometimes at a standstill for several days at a time in the Caucasus, while they waited for fresh supplies. Trucks carrying oil could not catch up because they too had run short of fuel. Finally, in desperation, the Germans took to transporting oil supplies on the backs of camels. By November 1942 the last German effort to break through the mountain passes toward Grozny and Baku had definitively been repulsed.

The city of Stalingrad, to the northwest of the Caucasus, was meant to be a sideshow to the main campaign, a secondary German objective. But, from the very beginning, its name made its fate pregnant with symbolism for both sides. It became the scene of a titanic, decisive struggle fought in the winter of 1942–43. Again and again, the German Army was crippled by supply shortages, of which that of fuel loomed largest. General Heinz Guderian, the legendary panzer commander, wrote that winter from the Stalingrad front to his wife: “The icy cold, the lack of shelter, the shortage of clothing, the heavy losses of men and equipment, the wretched state of our fuel supplies, all this makes the duties of a commander a misery.”

After more than eighteen months of unrelenting effort and extraordinary costs in human and material resources, the tide of battle turned, and the Germans were finally on the defensive in Russia. In a midnight phone call, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein begged Hitler to transfer the German forces in the Caucasus to his command in order to help the embattled Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

Hitler refused. “It’s a question of the possession of Baku, Field Marshal,” the dictator said. “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost.” Hitler then proceeded to deliver a lesson on the central importance oil had assumed in warfare. He repeated himself over and over, but he could not stop his own harangue. How much fuel an aircraft needed. How much fuel a tank needed. On and on, the words kept coming. “If I can no longer get you the oil for your operations, Field Marshal, you will be unable to do anything.”


Manstein tried to stop the onslaught, to argue with him about the immediate strategic issue—the survival of the Sixth Army. Hitler would not listen. Instead he described how German armies would meet up in the Middle East. “Then we shall march with our assembled forces to India, where we shall seal our final victory over England. Goodnight, Heil, Field Marshal!”

“Heil, mein Führer!” was all Manstein could say.

Despite Hitler’s rapture, the order to retreat was given in January 1943 to German soldiers in the Caucasus. But that was too late to do anything for the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Surrounded by Soviet forces, it was trapped, unable to risk a breakout. Its tanks only had enough fuel to move twenty miles, but to escape, they would have had to bridge a gap of thirty miles. It simply could not be done. And so at the end of January and beginning of February 1943, the encircled German forces at Stalingrad—ground down and incapacitated, frozen, hungry, and with their essential element of mobility gone—surrendered.

Stalingrad was Germany’s first major defeat in Europe, and it sent Hitler into an uncontrollable rage. German soldiers were supposed to die, not surrender. But Germany was no longer on the offensive. The blitzkrieg phase was over. Instead of lightning attacks, the critical factors from here on would be military manpower and economic resources—including oil. And on the eastern front, despite some reverses, the Soviets would press relentlessly forward, pushing the Germans out of all captured Russian territory and moving inexorably on the road toward the final goal, Berlin itself.13

Rommel and the Revenge of the Quartermaster

It was not only at Stalingrad, in late 1942 and early 1943, that the tide turned against Germany. Another major reversal unfolded on the sands and brownish grit and barren rocks of North Africa, near the border between Libya and Egypt.

North Africa was, in the words of General Erwin Rommel, the one theater of World War II where the military struggle took place almost totally on the new “principle of complete mobility.” That mobility was provided by Germany’s Panzer Army in North Africa and its most important element, the Afrika Korps, both the creation of Rommel. He was a brilliant, innovative, imaginative master of tank warfare and the mobile campaign, as well as a consummate risk taker in strategy and tactics. Small, silent, and cold, Rommel had established his reputation as a battlefield leader in the First World War. Hitler was impressed by a book he wrote on infantry tactics and in 1938 appointed him, though he was not a Nazi party member, to head the battalion responsible for the personal safety of the Führer. In 1940, he commanded a panzer division that moved with astonishing speed across France. That sweep had seemed to him more like a romp than a war. “We never imagined war in the West would be like this,” he wrote to his wife. The campaign, he added lightheartedly, had “turned into a lightning tour of France.”

In February 1941 Rommel was dispatched to North Africa to shore up an Italian Army that was on the brink of being defeated by British forces. War in this theater would also provide him with a tour of North Africa; for though only seventy miles in width, the battle zone would stretch a thousand miles in length, from Tripoli in Libya to El Alamein in Egypt. But despite the rapid movements of forces, there was nothing lightning about this struggle.

Rommel was committed to a war of movement and to boldness. He was scathing about the commander who halted a victorious advance at the urging of the quartermaster. “It has become the habit for quartermaster staffs to complain at every difficulty, instead of getting on with the job and using their powers of improvisation, which indeed are frequently nil,” he wrote. “When, after a great victory which has brought the destruction of the enemy, the pursuit is abandoned on the quartermaster’s advice, history almost invariably finds the decision to be wrong and points to the tremendous chances which have been missed.” Rommel had no intention to be so bound.

At first, Rommel won stunning victories in North Africa against British forces—often with only slender resources and captured booty. At one point, 85 percent of his transport was provided by captured British and American vehicles. He also had a considerable talent for improvisation, and not only in terms of tactics. Early in his campaign, Rommel ordered a number of “dummy tanks” built at workshops in Tripoli, which were then mounted on Volkswagens in order to frighten the British into thinking his armored divisions were much larger than in fact they were. But there was one thing even he could not fake. Mobile warfare was absolutely dependent on ample supplies of fuel—supplies that had to keep pace with rapid advances and be delivered along very long lines. And oil proved to be one of Rommel’s most persistent problems; it was sometimes, he said, his greatest. As early as June 1941 he wrote: “Unfortunately, our petrol stocks were badly depleted, and it was with some anxiety that we contemplated the coming British attack, for we knew that our moves would be decided more by the petrol gauge than by tactical requirements.”14

But, with his forces successfully resupplied with fuel in late 1941 and the first part of 1942, Rommel renewed his offensive, and at the end of May 1942 launched a major assault against the British. It went well—very well, indeed. The British fell back, and in one week, his forces were able to travel three hundred miles. Rather than stop at the frontier between Libya and Egypt, as had been planned and as the nature of his supply lines dictated, and as the quartermaster might have advised, Rommel pushed on across the border, until his advance was finally halted, late in June, near a small railway stop called El Alamein. He was now less than sixty miles from Alexandria; Cairo and the Suez Canal were not far beyond.

The Axis powers thought they were on the verge of a famous victory. Mussolini flew over to North Africa, accompanied, in another airplane, by a white charger, on which he planned to make a triumphant entry into Cairo. Rommel’s goals were far more expansive: Cairo would only be a way station for a campaign through Palestine, Iraq, and Iran whose final objective would be Baku and its oil fields. Their capture, in concert with the German forces then battling in the Caucasus, would, Rommel predicted, create “the strategic conditions” to “shatter the Russian colossus.” Hitler was swept up by the same intoxicating vision. “Destiny,” he wrote to Mussolini, “has offered us a chance which will never occur twice in the same theater of war.”

Both Rommel and Hitler spoke too soon. While the Soviets held on in the Caucasus, the Allies had succeeded, despite ferocious German attacks, in retaining the Mediterranean island of Malta, off the coast of Libya, which gave them a base from which to attack the Axis shipping that supplied Rommel’s forces in North Africa. The Allies were further aided by their intercepts of the German and Italian codes. Moreover, the supply aircraft of the Luftwaffe were themselves beginning to run short of fuel. The Italian supply ships were no longer getting through to North Africa. And Rommel’s very success—the incredible distance that the Afrika Korps had traveled—created a dangerous vulnerability. His own supply lines were very long, and the fuel trucks traveling from Tripoli used more gasoline to get to the front and back than they were able to carry. By driving so far and so incessantly fast, Rommel had not only called up the quartermaster’s nightmare, but had also put the Panzer Army in a position of considerable risk. Still, he thought victory was shortly to be his. On June 28, 1942, he wrote his wife to plan on a July vacation together in Italy. “Get passports!” he said.

On the other side of the line, panic was building in Cairo. The British were burning their documents, Allied personnel were being squeezed into cattle trains for a hasty evacuation, and Cairo merchants were hurriedly replacing the photographs of Churchill and Roosevelt in their shop windows with those of Hitler and Mussolini. But the British did not give way in late June and July 1942, and Rommel was too short of gasoline to regain his momentum. The two exhausted armies had fought to a stalemate in what came to be called the First Battle of El Alamein. And there in the desert they waited.15

In mid-August, Rommel gained a new and formidable adversary—the austere, ascetic, self-righteous, sometimes insubordinate, but invariably patient General Bernard Montgomery. A cousin of H. St. John B. Philby, the sorcerer’s apprentice of Saudi oil, Montgomery had been the best man when Philby was married in India. Early on in life, Montgomery had learned to depend on his own resources, and not much else. After the death of his wife, apparently the bizarre result of an insect bite, he seemed to have been left with virtually no emotional attachments, and precious little of any other kind. “Everything I possessed had been destroyed by enemy bombing in Portsmouth in January 1941,” he later wrote about his abrupt summons to take command of the British Eighth Army in Egypt. “I was now going to be given the opportunity to get my own back on the Germans.” Some thought him strange, even paranoid. Indeed, in his first address to a group of officers of the Eighth Army, at Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein, he felt the need to say: “I assure you I am quite sane. I understand there are people who often think I am slightly mad; so often that I now regard it as rather a compliment.”

If a little strange, Montgomery was also a methodical, pedagogic, and deeply analytical military strategist. He would sometimes spend hours a day by himself—in his own “mental oases,” as he called them—thinking through problems, searching for the key principles, laying out his plans. He hung a drawing of Rommel in his desert trailer, to help him think how Rommel would think. Montgomery knew that, in facing Rommel, he was taking on a modern legend, and one who had cast a spell of fear and awe over the Eighth Army. He had one clear aim, to do what many thought was beyond possibility: turn the tables on the master of mobile warfare and decisively defeat Rommel. For, said Montgomery, Rommel “had never been beaten before though he had often had to ‘nip back to get more petrol.’” For the actual execution of his battles, Montgomery would afterward be criticized for being too cautious. But, as one German general would later say, “he is the only Field-Marshal in this war who won all his battles.”

As Montgomery contemplated his coming struggle with Rommel, he sought to work out a strategy that would use the Eighth Army, now equipped with Sherman tanks, to full advantage as a unified whole, and that would capitalize on the fact that its own supply line was short and Rommel’s very long—and highly vulnerable. Still, by the end of August 1942, Rommel’s supply position had, once again, somewhat improved. Would he go on the offensive?

Rommel himself was of two minds about what to do next. He was acutely conscious of the fuel shortages and the constraints that would result; moreover, he was ill with a severe intestinal ailment and sheer exhaustion and had just requested medical leave. But he also wanted to get on with the drive to Cairo—and beyond. He was convinced that time was running short, and that the spirit of the Afrika Korps would win the day, whether the supplies were adequate or not. He gave the order to attack. This round, still in the environs of El Alamein, became known as the Battle of Alam Halfa.

Again and again, during that week-long battle, Rommel recorded how the Afrika Korps was hampered by its fuel shortage. On August 31: “Due to the heavy going, the Afrika Korps’ petrol stocks were soon badly depleted and at 16:00 hours we called off the attack on Hill 132.” On September 1, “the promised petrol had still not arrived in Africa.” It never came. Most of the fuel due for delivery by ship had either been sunk or was still waiting to be loaded in Italy. A small railway that might have been used to transport gasoline had been flooded. Rommel’s forces were not able to get past the tactically well-placed British artillery. By September 7, 1942, the battle of Alam Halfa was over. Rommel’s latest offensive had been stopped dead in its tracks, and a legend of invincibility was toppling.16

In the weeks that followed, Rommel begged Hitler’s headquarters for more supplies at all costs, including fuel sufficient for two thousand miles per vehicle. On September 23, Rommel left North Africa to see, first, Mussolini in Rome, then Hitler at his headquarters on the Russian front. Again he pleaded for more supplies; instead, he received the baton of Field Marshal, personally bestowed upon him by his Führer. Hitler made generous promises, which he would not keep.

On October 23, after weeks of careful preparation and resupply, Montgomery opened his counterattack, known as the Second Battle of El Alamein, with a powerful artillery barrage. The Germans were stunned. On the first day, General Georg Stumme, Rommel’s replacement, fell out of his car when it came under British aerial bombardment and died of a heart attack. Hitler telephoned Rommel, who was in the Austrian Alps on sick leave, and ordered him to return immediately to North Africa. By the evening of October 25, he was back in Egypt—this time commanding the beginning of a long retreat.

German hopes for new supplies were pinned on aircraft and ships that were being methodically destroyed by the Royal Navy and the RAF. When Rommel learned that four ships, carrying desperately needed supplies of petroleum, had been sunk by the RAF in the supposedly safe harbor at Tobruk, he lay awake all night, his eyes wide open, unable to sleep. He knew what the sinkings meant. “In attacking our petrol transport,” he wrote, “the British were able to hit us in a part of our machine on whose proper functioning the whole of the rest depended.”

During the ensuing weeks, all Rommel could do was fall back. At times, he believed that he could have turned around and delivered devastating blows to his pursuers, but he simply did not have the fuel to dare it. To Hitler he repeatedly described the fuel situation as “catastrophic.” An even greater catastrophe loomed when Allied forces invaded Morocco and Algeria—in the path of his retreat. The days of his Afrika Korps were numbered. On Christmas Eve, 1942, Rommel joined his headquarters company’s Christmas party. That day, he had shot a gazelle from his car, which he contributed to the dinner table. In turn, he received a present from the assembled men—a couple of pounds of captured coffee, presented in a miniature oil barrel. “Thus proper homage,” he said, “was paid to our most serious problem even on that day.” Soon all that Rommel’s forces had left was a toehold between the forces advancing from both east and west. The legend had fallen, and in March 1943 Rommel, now regarded by Hitler as defeatist, was removed from command of the Afrika Korps. By May, the last German and Italian troops in North Africa had surrendered.17

But Rommel was called to serve the Führer again, first in Italy, and then in France, where he was badly wounded shortly after the Normandy invasion, when his car was hit by Allied bombs. Three days later, a group of army officers tried to assassinate Hitler, but failed. Rommel was suspected both of involvement in the conspiracy and of plotting a separate surrender in the West to the Allies. Hitler ordered his death, but it could not be done publicly, for Rommel was a very popular general, and the adverse impact on German morale might have been enormous. So, instead, in October 1944, two SS generals appeared at his home with an ultimatum. Either he commit a suicide that could be disguised as a natural death, or his entire family would be in danger. Rommel, holding the Field Marshal’s baton that Hitler had given him two years earlier, drove off with the two SS men. A few hundred yards from the house, the car pulled over into an open space in the woods; the area had been sealed off by the Gestapo. Rommel was given a poison pill; he swallowed it and fell forward in the seat, dropping the Field Marshal’s baton. Rommel was dead. The death was attributed to a brain hemorrhage; a state funeral was organized, and Hitler sent his condolences. Rommel’s “heart,” said the official funeral oration, “belonged to the Führer.”

In Rommel’s papers, collected after his death, he left a hard-earned epitaph for the role of supply, and in particular of oil, in the age of mobile warfare. “The battle is fought and decided by the Quartermasters before the shooting begins,” he wrote, looking back on El Alamein. He himself had derisively rejected such a thought a few years earlier. But he had learned a bitter lesson across the sands of North Africa. “The bravest men can do nothing without guns, the guns nothing without plenty of ammunition, and neither guns nor ammunition are of much use in mobile warfare unless there are vehicles with sufficient petrol to haul them around.” But he had also stated that dictum in more personal terms. Two weeks after the Second Battle of El Alamein, as his army was retreating before Montgomery’s forces, Rommel wrote to his wife. “Shortage of petrol! It’s enough to make one weep.”18

Autarchy and Catastrophe

By mid-1943, the Axis had been defeated both in Russia and in North Africa, and the dream of German armies converging at Baku or on the oil fields of the Middle East had been relegated to the realm of fantasy. Thus, Germany had to turn back to its own resources. There was no other choice. Synthetic fuels would be at the heart of the frantic effort to sustain the machines of war. And in that effort, Hitler’s Reich would display its technological ingenuity—as well as its total moral bankruptcy.

Belatedly, the Nazi regime began to reorganize the German economy to increase the output of synthetic fuels and other essential materials in preparation for a long struggle. The man in charge was Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect. The intensely ambitious Speer had much earlier established himself as one of Hitler’s favorites. He had caught Hitler’s attention a decade before with his various plans for a grand panorama of flags, hundred-foot-high eagles and spotlights for the 1933 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. Himself a frustrated artist, Hitler was captivated by Speer’s conceptions and by his personality and put him in charge of all the monuments of the Reich. Hitler also gave him a personal commission to construct the new Reich Chancellery and to rebuild Berlin. In 1942, the Führer appointed Speer Minister of Armaments and War Production. In early 1943, as the magnitude of the failures in Russia and North Africa became clear, Speer’s brief as Minister of Armaments was much expanded; he was given sweeping powers over the entire German economy. He now controlled, or at least influenced, virtually all phases of economic life.

The architect, formerly in charge of the stone monuments to the eternal glory of the Thousand-Year Reich, proved himself remarkably adept in dealing with the Reich’s more immediate and urgent problems of industrial mobilization. Speer drove the slack out of the German economy. The two and a half years after his initial appointment would see a more than threefold increase in the production of aircraft, weapons, and ammunition, and a nearly sixfold increase in tanks. And these remarkable production records were being set at the same time that Allied forces were carrying out an extensive if not particularly successful strategic bombing campaign against a variety of German targets, such as the aviation industry and railway depots and ball-bearings factories. German industrial production was still rising; indeed it registered its highest level of the entire war in June 1944. The great potential claimed for strategic bombing was far from being realized. “Oil, which was Germany’s weakest point,” wrote the British military historian Basil Liddell Hart, “was scarcely touched.” Yet both the German military chiefs and Speer worried. Would the Allies make the destruction of the synthetic fuels industry a major objective? For it offered a critical, concentrated, sensitive target in the way that other industrial activities did not, and a campaign against it could well jeopardize the entire German war economy.

The synthetic fuels industry was headed on the same upward trend as the rest of the war economy. By 1942, the industry had, on all fronts, recorded a considerable advance over the 1930s—new production technologies, better catalysts, higher grade output, and a capability to accept a much wider variety of coals as raw material. And production was increasing quickly. Between 1940 and 1943, synthetic fuel production almost doubled, from 72,000 to 124,000 barrels per day. The synthetic fuels plants were the critical links in the fuel system; in the first quarter of 1944, they provided 57 percent of total supply—and 92 percent of aviation gasoline. And the throttle was open; in the first quarter of 1944, production was running, if annualized, at an even higher rate. Altogether, during the Second World War, synthetic fuels would account for half of Germany’s total oil production.19

It could not have happened without immense effort and all the normal tools and techniques of the Nazi war economy, including slave labor. Hitler had transformed the Viennese streetcorner anti-Semitism of his youth into a monstrous and diabolical ideology, at the center of which was the murder and destruction of the Jews. The concentration camps were the mechanisms for achieving this “Final Solution,” which was decided upon in a mere two hours at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. But, until the “Final Solution” could be completed, those Jews who were fit—along with Slavs and other prisoners—were to be put to work to further the objectives of the Reich that had already pronounced a death sentence upon them. And so a continuing supply of concentration camp prisoners was drafted into I. G. Farben’s hydrogenation plants, as well as into its synthetic rubber plants. The company, in fact, was building synthetic fuel and rubber plants adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi mass murder factories; upwards of two million people, mostly Jews, were put to death there with gas manufactured by an I. G. Farben subsidiary. The I. G. Farben officials described the Auschwitz site, with its ample supplies of coal and labor, as “very favorably located.” The synthetic fuels plant at Auschwitz was under the directorship of the same chemist who had represented the company in the June 1932 meeting with Hitler in Munich.

I. G. Farben used both so-called “free” and slave labor in this enterprise. The chemical company paid a per diem for each slave laborer—three or four marks for an adult, depending upon skills, and half price for children. The money went, of course, not to the workers but into the coffers of the SS, Hitler’s elite military force. The slave laborers subsisted, at most, on a thousand calories a day and slept on wooden racks. They would work for a few months, then die from the horrible living conditions or the beatings or be killed in the death camp, and then would be replaced by others taken from newly arrived trains packed like cattle cars with more prisoners.

I. G. adjusted to the requisites of its partnership with the SS. At one point, it asked that the guards cease severely flogging prisoners in front of the “free” Poles and Germans on the site. “The exceedingly unpleasant scenes” were having a “demoralizing effect…. We have therefore asked that they should refrain from carrying out this flogging on the construction site and transfer it to the inside of the concentration camp.” Several months later, however, the I. G. Farben management came to agree with the methods of the SS: “Our experience so far has shown that only brute force has any effect on these people.”

Eventually, I. G. Farben became disenchanted with the quality of slave labor from the main camp at Auschwitz; the daily four-mile hike in each direction tended to debilitate the prisoners, and they became too prone to the diseases in the main camp. To prevent that, the company built its own private enterprise “branch” concentration camp, Monowitz, along the same model as the main camp. The records that survived indicate that three hundred thousand prisoners passed through I. G. Farben’s portals at Auschwitz. The plants were so large that they used more electricity than the entire city of Berlin.

One of those was Prisoner Number 174,517, a young Italian named Primo Levi, who managed to survive only because he could recall enough of the organic chemistry he had studied in Turin to be put to work in a lab. “This huge entanglement of iron, concrete, mud and smoke is the negation of beauty,” he said of I. G.’s industrial complex. “Within its bounds not a blade of grass grows, and the soil is impregnated with the poisonous saps of coal and petroleum, and the only thing alive are machines and slaves—and the former are more alive than the latter.” Monowitz was a death factory. It was also a business, down to the camp staff who made money selling in the nearby market the clothes and shoes of those who died at Monowitz and those who had been stripped naked to be sent to crematoriums of the neighboring camps. The stench of the crematoriums at Auschwitz and Birkenau suffused the air at Monowitz. To Levi, it was “world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished.”

By 1944, according to one estimate, a third of the total work force in the German synthetic fuels industry, throughout the Reich, was slave labor. I. G. Farben had become a deeply involved and enthusiastic partner in its joint venture with the SS at Auschwitz. And, naturally enough, the two parties engaged in a good deal of mutual socializing. Just before one Christmas, the resident I. G. Farben managers at Auschwitz joined men from the local SS in a holiday shooting party. The bag totaled 203 rabbits, one fox, and one wildcat. The head of construction at the Farben complex was “proclaimed champion hunter,” with a bag of one fox and ten rabbits. “A good time was had by all,” according to the record of the hunt. “The result was the best in this district so far this year and will probably only be surpassed by the hunt the concentration camp is holding in the near future.”20

“The Primary Strategic Aim”

Following the haphazard and ineffectual Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany, General Carl Spaatz, the commander of the United States Strategic Air Force in Europe, decided that a change had to be made. On March 5, 1944, he proposed to General Dwight Eisenhower, who was in charge of the preparations for the Normandy invasion, that a new priority target be set—the German synthetic fuels industry. Its output, he promised, could be cut by half within six months. He noted an expected added benefit: So critical to the Germans were these plants that such attacks would flush out the Luftwaffe, and also force the diversion of many planes and pilots from France, where the invasion was targeted.

The British opposed Spaatz’s plan, insisting instead on the need to target the French railway system. But, finally, Spaatz received a tacit go-ahead from Eisenhower for the synthetic fuel targets. On May 12, 1944, a combat force involving 935 bombers, plus the fighter escorts, bombed a number of synthetic fuels factories, including the giant I. G. Farben plant at Leuna. As soon as Albert Speer realized what had happened, he rushed by plane to Leuna to see the damage for himself. “I shall never forget the date May 12,” he later wrote. “On that day the technological war was decided.” The results of the attack, and the broken, twisted pipe systems that he now saw as he toured the plant site, made real “what had been a nightmare to us for more than two years.” A week after the attack, Speer flew off to report personally to his Führer. “The enemy has struck us at one of our weakest points,” he told Hitler. “If they persist at it this time, we will soon no longer have any fuel production worth mentioning. Our one hope is that the other side has an Air Force General Staff as scatterbrained as ours!”21

Yet this initial attack was not so troublesome as it first appeared. Just before Allied invaders forced Italy out of the war, the German military had seized its oil stocks, adding substantially to its own reserves. That provided some cushion. And feverish activity at the damaged fuel plants returned synthetic fuel production to its former levels within a couple of weeks. But then, on May 28–29, the Allies hit the oil facilities in Germany again. Other Allied bombers attacked the oil installations at Ploesti in Rumania. On June 6, D-Day, the Allies staged the long-awaited invasion of Western Europe, gaining a precarious foothold on the beaches of Normandy. It was now more important than ever to knock out the Germans’ fuel supply, and on June 8, General Spaatz gave the formal directive—the “primary strategic aim of the United States Strategic Air Forces is now to deny oil to enemy armed forces.” Regular bombing attacks on the synthetic fuels industry followed.

In response, Speer ordered that synthetic fuels plants and other oil facilities be rebuilt quickly, or dispersed where possible into smaller, better-protected, and hidden sites—some in the rubble of destroyed factories, some in quarries, some underground. Even breweries were converted to making fuel. Substantial increases in synthetic fuel capacity had been planned for 1944, but now the machinery and components scheduled for the increase had to be cannibalized to repair existing facilities. Upward of 350,000 workers—many of them slave laborers—were engaged in this frantic undertaking. At first, the plants were rebuilt quickly, but as time went on and they were subjected to further air attacks, they became more fragile and vulnerable, and more difficult to get back into operation yet again. Production began to plummet quickly. Before the attacks first began in May 1944, synthetic fuel production by hydrogenation was averaging 92,000 barrels per day; by September, output had fallen to 5,000 barrels per day. Aviation gasoline production that month was just 3,000 barrels per day—only 6 percent of the average production in the first four months of 1944. Meanwhile, the Russians had captured the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania, depriving Hitler of his major source of crude oil.

The output of German planes was still at peak level. But they sat on the ground; they were of little use without fuel. Jet fighters, a new German innovation that would have given the Luftwaffe a significant advantage, were being introduced into operational squadrons in the autumn of 1944. But there was no fuel to train the pilots, or indeed even to get the planes into the air. Altogether, the Luftwaffe was operating on just one-tenth of the minimum required gasoline. The German Air Force was now caught in a fatal trap. Without fighter planes to protect the fuel plants, the destructive impact of the Allied raids grew, further reducing the supplies of aviation gasoline available for the Luftwaffe. In-air training for new pilots was cut to only an hour a week. “This was actually the fatal blow for the Luftwaffe!” General Adolph Galland, commander of German fighter forces, was to say after the war. “From September on, the shortage of fuel was unbearable. Air operations were thereby made virtually impossible.”

In the autumn of 1944, bad weather temporarily curtailed the attacks, and in November, the Germans managed to increase the output of synthetic fuels. But production fell again in December. “We must realize that the men on the enemy side who are directing the economic air raids know something about German economic life,” Speer told an armaments conference. “Fortunately for us the enemy began following this strategy only in the last half or three-quarters of a year…. Before that he was, at least from his standpoint, committing absurdities.” At last, the strategic bombing campaign, with its attack on the synthetic fuels industry, was paralyzing major parts of the German war machine. But the battle was not yet over.22

The Battle of the Bulge: Europe’s Biggest Gas Station

By the fall of 1944, the D-Day invasion of Normandy had widened, in slow and costly stages, to drive the Germans out of France. At the same time, Soviet forces were pushing in on Germany from the east. But to Hitler, the war could not be coming to an end. His Reich could not fail. On December 16, he launched a huge counteroffensive in the hilly, wooded Ardennes forest, in the east of Belgium and Luxembourg. Later known as the Battle of the Bulge, it was Germany’s last great concentrated attack, the finalblitzkrieg. The plan was Hitler’s own, and everything was thrown into it, including every bit of fuel that could be scrounged from other units inside Germany. The objective was to throw back the Allies, isolate their armies, recapture the initiative, and buy time for the development of new, more devastating weapons to use against the Allies’ soldiers and civilians. The Germans caught the unprepared Allies completely by surprise, managed to work great confusion behind their lines, and succeeded in breaking through.

The Germans had the advantage of surprise, but they had undertaken the assault with vastly insufficient resources and with a strength that on paper appeared much greater than in fact it was. The reserves of manpower that might have been decisive in the battle could not reach the front lines. “They could not be moved,” a German commander later said. “They were at a standstill for lack of petrol—stranded over a stretch of a hundred miles—just when they were needed.”

In their 1940blitzkrieg in this same area, the Germans’ fuel deficiency had mattered little; they had captured more gasoline than they had expended. Now, four and a half years later, they had no such luck. But they did come perilously close. For the area around Stavelot in eastern Belgium was the Allies’ largest fuel dump and, indeed, the biggest filling station in Europe. There the Allies had stored 2.5 million gallons of fuel for their troops—along with two million road maps of Europe. The roads throughout the area were lined with hundreds of thousands of five-gallon jerry cans. The Allied forces would stop, fill up with whatever fuel they needed, and drive on.

On the morning of December 17, the second day of the German offensive, a panzer unit, led by a butcherous colonel named Jochem Peiper, overran a small fuel dump nearby. Peiper forced fifty captured American soldiers to fill his vehicles and then coldly ordered them killed. A large number of American prisoners were also gunned down, in what became known as the Malmédy Massacre. By that evening, Peiper’s forces were within a thousand feet or so of the much grander prize—the forward edge of the Stavelot dump, fifty times larger than the one they had captured earlier that day. The Allied defenses were light and disorganized. Peiper’s forces moved north across the bridge over the Ansleve River and into Stavelot. In a desperate effort to improvise, a small group of Allied defenders poured the contents of some of the jerry cans into a round ditch and set it ablaze, creating a wall of fire. Peiper examined his maps carefully, but they were out of date and failed to show the correct location or magnitude of the dump. He did not know about the bounty that lay at hand. Instead of sending his forces through the thin wall of fire, he ordered them to go back across the bridge and head west, leaving the fuel dump secure. Ironically, Peiper’s unit soon ran out of fuel; his tanks got only half a mile to the gallon. Resupply efforts by the Luftwaffe failed, and the unit was captured.

Peiper’s U-turn was one of those small battle incidents with momentous consequences. The Stavelot fuel supply was equivalent to the requirements of the first ten days of Germany’s entire Ardennes offensive; its capture would have given the Germans the fuel to push on to Antwerp and the English Channel at a time when the Allies were still reeling in disorganization and confusion. Even so, it was not until Christmas Day 1944, ten days after the Germans began their offensive, that they were finally stopped and pushed back.23

“Twilight of the Gods”

More fuel would have bought the Germans more time. With the failure of the Ardennes offensive, Germany’s war effort, from a strategic point of view, was over. In February 1945 German production of aviation gasoline amounted to just a thousand tons—one-half of one percent of the level of the first four months of 1944. None was produced thereafter. But the delusions of victory lived on. Those around Hitler, Speer would recall, “would listen to him in silence when, in the long since hopeless situation, he continued to commit nonexistent divisions or to order units supplied by planes that could no longer fly for lack of fuel.”

Still, the months of bloody fighting went on, on both the western and eastern fronts, as Hitler and his immediate entourage retreated ever more into fantasy, with the Führer himself calling for a scorched earth policy and issuing (in the words of one of his generals) “the last crazy orders.” Even as the end approached, he remained in the grip of his insane, violent visions, for which at least 35 million people paid with their lives. He listened to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung—“Twilight of the Gods”—on the gramophone, waiting for some magical deliverance, and avidly read horoscopes that promised a sudden improvement in his fortunes. Only when Russian soldiers were almost directly above his underground bunker, on the doorstep of the now-ruined Chancellery that Speer had designed for him, did Hitler commit suicide. He left orders that his body be doused in gasoline and burned so that it would not fall into the hands of the hated Slavs. There was enough gasoline at hand to carry out that final order.

But to many around Hitler, the impending disaster resulting from the Nazi fantasies and savagery had been apparent for months. On a night journey to the struggling remnants of Germany’s Tenth Army in Italy, Albert Speer had seen before him a clear vision of one of the primary reasons why the Reich that was to last for a thousand years had, in fact, only weeks to go. For on that trip, he had encountered 150 German Army trucks. To each were hitched four oxen, which were dragging the trucks forward. It was the only way the vehicles could move. They had no fuel.24

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!