Modern history


The Allies’War

WINSTON CHURCHILL had spent the decade of the 1930s in the political wilderness, his warnings about Nazi intentions and capabilities unheeded. But in September 1939, at the age of sixty-six, he was abruptly recalled to the post he had held more than a quarter century earlier, on the eve of World War I—First Lord of the Admiralty. But this time his charge was not to prepare for a war. It was too late for that. War had already come a few days earlier, with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Still, there then ensued a lull, a phoney war, which lasted half a year, until the spring of 1940, when Hitler sent his troops smashing across Western Europe. The appeasers fell in London, and Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain.

The outlook was grim and disheartening. Norway and Denmark were in German hands, France would surrender the following month, and Britain would stand alone, bearing the brunt of the war. No one was better suited than Churchill to lead his country through its “darkest hour.” No one better understood the critical role that oil would play, first in Britain’s very survival, and then in the prolonged conflict ahead.

Well before the outbreak of fighting, the British government had initiated a serious evaluation of its oil position in light of what seemed the inevitable conflict with Germany. In late 1937, a special committee examined the possibility of Britain’s adopting an “oil from coal” synthetic fuels strategy along the lines of Germany’s. After all, Britain possessed very rich coal reserves within its own safe confines, while almost all of its oil had to be imported. Nevertheless, the strategy was rejected. It would have been very costly, while Britain not only had access to substantial supplies of cheaper oil around the world, but was also home to two major international companies, Shell and Anglo-Iranian. Also, it was decided that, appearances notwithstanding, security would not be better servedwith synthetic oil. A system based on the importation of conventional oil in many ships through many ports would be less vulnerable to air attack than one dependent on a few very large, easily identifiable—and easily bombed—hydrogenation plants.

In its planning for war, the British government anticipated very tight and explicit cooperation with the oil industry of a kind that could not have been easily fashioned in the United States. In the United Kingdom, 85 percent of domestic refining and marketing was in the hands of just three companies—Shell, Anglo-Iranian, and Jersey’s British subsidiary. At the time of Munich, in 1938, the government decided that, in the event of war, all the “paraphernalia of competition” would be eliminated, and that the entire British oil industry would be run as one giant combine, under the aegis of the government.

The government also had to cope with a different kind of problem—the future of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group. The current management of the Group was no less concerned and apprehensive. For there was a risk that the Group could pass under the Nazi sway. The heart of the problem was Henri Deterding, the grand master of the company. He had continued to dominate the Group through the 1920s. “Sir Henri’s word is law,” observed a British official in 1927. “He can bind the Board of the Shell without their knowledge and consent.” But by the 1930s, Deterding’s grip on the company was slipping, and he was becoming an embarrassment to the management and a source of anxiety to the British government. His behavior was increasingly erratic, disruptive, megalomaniacal.

In the mid-1930s, as he entered his seventies, Deterding had developed two infatuations. One was for his secretary, a young German woman. The other was for Adolf Hitler. The determined Dutchman—who had gravitated to Britain before World War I, had been courted by Admiral Fisher and Winston Churchill, and had become a firm and fervent ally during that war—was now, in his old age, entranced with the Nazis. “His hatred of the Soviets, his admiration for Hitler and his idée fixe on the subject of Anglo-German friendship in an anti-Soviet sense are, of course, all well-known,” sighed a Foreign Office official. On his own, Deterding initiated discussions in 1935 with the German government about Shell’s providing a year’s supply of oil—in effect, a military reserve—to Germany on credit. Rumors of these talks so greatly alarmed the Shell management in London that one of the senior directors, Andrew Agnew, asked the government to have the British embassy in Berlin investigate so that Agnew “could take suitable actions with his colleagues on the Board here in good time.” Commented one official, “Deterding is getting an old man, but he is a man of strong views, and I am afraid we cannot stop him consorting with political chiefs.” He added, “The British members of the Board of the company are keen that the company should not do anything which would be contrary to the views of H.M. Government.”

Finally, retiring from Shell at the end of 1936, Deterding acted on both of his new infatuations. He divorced his second wife, married his German secretary, and went to live on an estate in Germany. He also took to urging other European nations to cooperate with the Nazis to stop the Bolshevik hordes, and he himself exchanged visits with the Nazi leaders. By 1937, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, a former colleague of Deterding’s in Royal Dutch, said that he “could not understand how a man, who had made his name and fortune in England and who had received certain assistance from the country of his adoption, should suddenly migrate to Germany and devote himself to furthering the welfare of that country.” His activities, the Prime Minister added disparagingly, were “infantile and leaving no doubt as to his feelings.” Deterding’s last years, not surprisingly, were to undermine what would otherwise have been a considerable reputation as an “international oil man.”

Deterding died in Germany in early 1939, six months before the war began. Strange and deeply disturbing rumors immediately reached London. Not only had the Nazis made much of his funeral, but they were also trying to take advantage of the circumstances of his death to gain control of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group. That, of course, would have been a disaster for Great Britain. The company had virtually been Britain’s quartermaster general for oil during World War I. Should it now pass under Nazi domination, Britain’s entire system of petroleum supply would be undermined. But it was discovered that the key “preference” shares, which embodied control, could only be held by directors, and at his demise, Deterding’s shares had been swiftly distributed to the other directors. At best, the Germans could only get their hands on a tiny fraction of the common shares, which would do them no good at all, either before or after the outbreak of war.1

As soon as the war began, the British oil companies, including Shell, merged their downstream activities into the Petroleum Board, in effect creating a national monopoly. It was done swiftly and without protest. Petrol pumps were painted dark green and the product was sold under the single brand name “Pool.” The industry people continued to operate the business, but they now did so under national control. Britain’s oil war was thereafter run out of Shell-Mex House on the Strand in London, just down from the Savoy Hotel. (Shell’s own headquarters was moved to a company sports facility on the edge of London.) Overall government direction was eventually lodged in an agency called the Petroleum Department.

The issues facing Britain were global. It had to assume that Germany, as signatory of a new pact with the Soviet Union, would be able to obtain an abundant supply of Russian oil, while British supplies from the Far East would be curtailed if the Japanese invaded Southeast Asia. Closer to home, the rich and convenient resources of Rumania were also available to Germany. A few months after the war began, before France had been overrun by the Germans, the British and French governments, seeking to replicate what had been carried out in World War I, had jointly offered to pay Rumania $60 million to destroy its oil fields, and thus prevent the Germans from taking the output. But the two sides could never agree on a price, the deal was never struck, and Rumanian oil went, as feared, to the Germans. The destruction was left to be done by Allied bombers, much later in the war.

In Britain itself, practical problems of supply had to be quickly dealt with. Rationing was imposed almost at once. The “basic ration” for motorists was first set at eighteen hundred miles a year. It was progressively tightened, as military needs increased and stocks declined, and then it was eliminated altogether. The authorities wanted to see the family car up on blocks in the garage, and not on the road. As a result, there was a great boom in bicycling.

And what was to be done with oil supplies if Britain were invaded—all too real a possibility in the dismal days of 1940, after the Nazi armies had swept across Western Europe and were poised on the French side of the English Channel? The Germans had captured France’s oil stockpiles, thus providing the wherewithal to maintain the momentum of their advance. A similar booty of British oil supplies could prove critical to the success or failure of a Nazi cross-Channel attack. As a consequence, plans were made at Shell-Mex House for the immediate destruction of British stocks in the event of an invasion. Meanwhile, the local, friendly, unprotected petrol (or gas) station seemed to be much too convenient for invading Germans, who would simply be able to pull in and fill up. For that reason, some seventeen thousand gasoline-selling establishments in eastern and southeastern England were quickly shut down, and sales and supplies were concentrated in two thousand stations that could be better defended—or, if need be, set ablaze to deny them to the enemy.2

The Oil Czar: The Mobilization of American Supply

There was, for the British, the overarching concern—how to supply their war? The outbreak of fighting would mean much larger oil consumption for Britain, and the only place to look was to the United States, which was responsible for almost two-thirds of total world production. To the administrators in Whitehall and the oil men at Shell-Mex House, two questions were paramount: Would the oil be available? And would Britain, already strapped for dollars, be able to pay for it? The answers to both questions would have to be found in Washington.

In December 1940, with his third election safely out of the way, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the United States the “arsenal of democracy.” In March 1941, Lend Lease was instituted, which removed the problem of finance—or, as Roosevelt put it, “the silly, foolish old dollar sign”—as a constraint on American supply to Britain. Among those things to be “lent,” for repayment at some indefinite time in the future, was American oil. The neutrality legislation, which restricted the ability to ship supplies to Britain, was progressively loosened. And, in the spring of 1941, when oil supplies began to plummet in the United Kingdom, fifty American oil tankers were switched from supplying the American East Coast ports to carrying oil for transshipment to England. Thus, by late spring 1941, important steps had been taken to weld together the American and British supply systems and put the United States in position to fuel England’s lonely stand. In fact, the United States had a surplus, unused oil production capacity of about one million barrels per day. That was equivalent to about 30 percent of the 3.7 million barrels per day production that year. The extra capacity, a result of the federal-state prorationing system set up in the 1930s, turned out to be an invaluable security margin, a strategic resource of immense significance. Without it, the course of World War II might well have been different.

In May 1941, the day after Roosevelt declared an “unlimited national emergency”—though the United States was not yet in the war—he appointed Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to the additional post of Petroleum Coordinator for National Defense. That once again made the Old Curmudgeon the nation’s top oil man, or as he became known, its Oil Czar. Ickes’s first task was to reshape the relationship between the Roosevelt Administration and the oil industry. In 1933, the New Deal had come to the aid of an oil industry drowning in the flood of oil from East Texas. But by the latter 1930s, it had become increasingly critical of “monopoly” in the oil industry, and indeed, in 1940, the Justice Department had launched an antitrust case against the American Petroleum Institute and twenty-two major oil companies—and 345 smaller oil companies—charging them with violations in every aspect of their business. Another shift came with the national emergency and the imminence of war. As Roosevelt was later to explain, “Old Dr. New Deal” had to call in his partner “Dr. Win-the-War.” And what Dr. New Deal had found unpalatable and unhealthy about Big Oil—its size and scale, its integrated operations, its self-reliance, its ability to mobilize capital and technology—was exactly what Dr. Win-the-War would prescribe as the urgent medicine for wartime mobilization.3

Ickes also had to take the lead in turning around an industry geared to coping with surplus to one that would maximize output and avert shortage, and do it in the face of public skepticism that such a shortage could possibly occur. At the same time, America’s oil industry—heterodox, riven by bitter rivalries and suspicions among the large integrated majors, the independent producers, and refiners and marketers—would have to be fused in effect, though not formally, into one giant organization, under government direction and mobilized for war. This had been done swiftly and efficiently in Britain, where even rationing had been accepted with hardly a murmur. The story would be different in America.

Harold Ickes started with a huge liability: He was widely detested by the industry. Though he had come to its assistance in 1933, he had subsequently become a critic, calling for greater regulation by the Federal government of the industry’s operations and profitability, even flirting with the idea of nationalization. The companies had a particular and bitter complaint against Ickes. During the Depression, at his behest, the oil companies had established pools to buy up “distress” gasoline. In 1936, after the Supreme Court invalidated the National Industrial Recovery Act, under which authority Ickes had acted, the Justice Department indicted the companies for the pooling. Ickes, thereafter, kept quiet about his promotion of the scheme and conveniently found that he could not get to the trial, held in Wisconsin, to testify about his role. The companies were convicted, and that experience made them leery, to put it mildly, of working with him again. Indeed, upon his appointment as Petroleum Coordinator, the Oil Weekly rushed out a special supplement to warn against the imminent “antagonistic management and probably vindictive tampering of a man who has no qualities nor specific traits of ability to handle the job.” Ickes would prove otherwise. From the beginning, he demonstrated a willingness to work closely and pragmatically with the industry. He chose as his deputy an experienced oil man, Ralph Davies, a marketing executive from Standard of California. And thereafter, the Oil Czar succeeded in disarming the hostility and cooperating effectively to mobilize this critical industry.4

Trial by Sea: The Battle of the Atlantic

The most vulnerable link in the supply chain being forged between America and a beleaguered Britain was the wide expanse of the Atlantic that tankers and freighters had to cross. Here lay the German opportunity to strangle the military capabilities of the British and, later, of the American forces in North Africa and Europe, as well as the Russian war machine, for which American oil would quickly become vital. “The more ruthlessly economic warfare is waged,” Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander in Chief of the German Navy, declared, “the earlier it will show results and the sooner the war will end.” The weapon was the U-boat, and its ability to disorganize shipping was quickly felt. Early in 1941, the U-boats, now operating in “wolf packs,” stepped up the campaign. Oil tankers were their favored targets.

The great success of these attacks terrified the British, and those few Americans to whom the British showed the graphs that depicted the ever-rising tonnage and supplies lost, measured against the dwindling stockpiles in the United Kingdom and the growing needs of war. The battle, expressed so abstractly, frustrated Churchill to his core. “How willingly,” he said, “would I have exchanged a full-scale invasion for this shapeless, measureless peril, expressed in charts, curves, and statistics!” In March 1941, he described the onslaughts on shipping as “the blackest cloud which we had to face.” He had no doubt how much was at stake in the silent and remote battle in the waters of the Atlantic, and he knew that he could not win it without American help.

“Nothing less than shocking…grave in the extreme.” That was how Harold Ickes’s deputy, Ralph Davies, reported to him on England’s perilous oil supply situation in July 1941. There were only five weeks of motor gasoline stocks and only two months of fuel for the Royal Navy, whereas seven months’ inventory was considered the rock-bottom minimum for safety. Ickes was convinced that everything that could be done to help the British prosecute the war should be done. And reducing oil consumption on the East Coast would help, by freeing both shipping and supplies that could be redirected to England. Ickes mobilized the nation’s railway tank cars to rush supplies to the East Coast. Together with the oil companies, he launched a high-profile voluntary conservation campaign, which included the distribution of windshield stickers that said, “I’m using one-third less gas.” He asked service stations to close at 7:00 P.M. and not reopen until 7:00 A.M., and he sought to reinstate the “gasolineless Sundays” of World War I. He even tried to get a car pooling program going in the Department of the Interior to serve as a model for the rest of the country. (Always a reformer at heart, he saw a valuable side benefit: “We may be able to improve parking conditions generally in Washington,” he noted in his diary.) But the voluntary conservation program was a flop, and Ickes turned to the companies and pressed them to cut back their deliveries to gasoline stations by 10 to 15 percent.5

The one thing that Ickes did not do, and could not do, was explain the real reasons for conservation: the dismal effects of the German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic and the deplorable state of British oil supplies. He feared that if he publicized the severity of the situation, he would be passing on valuable intelligence to the Nazis. Nor did he want unnecessarily to rile the isolationists in the United States. Thus, the whole conservation program aroused a storm of protest—from the politically powerful independent oil producers in Texas, who were deprived of their access to independent tankers, to the independent oil refiners and distributors in the East, who had to absorb the much higher costs of railway transportation. The New Jersey state legislature passed a resolution denouncing the conservation effort because of the threat it posed to the state’s fishing and summer resorts. Major elements of the press labeled the situation a “phony shortage,” and free-wheeling American motorists rebelled at the thought of even voluntarily cutting back on their driving.

In order to counter the U-boat menace, the United States increased its patrols further out into the Atlantic, and established bases in Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and Bermuda. At the same time, the British cracked German naval codes, enabling them to put convoys on evasive routings. That—combined with reduced demand, Lend Lease, and the transfer of the fifty tankers—helped take the pressure off England, at least temporarily. But the danger had been far greater than everyone, except a tiny handful, knew. “It was only by the narrowest of margins,” in the words of the official history of British intelligence, that “the U-boat campaign failed to be decisive during 1941.”

By the autumn of that same year, the supply situation on the U.S. East Coast had improved considerably, while the British, their oil position temporarily improved, handed back the tankers that had been transferred to them. That, of course, seemed to prove there had been no shortage at all, and Ickes found himself pilloried both in the press and in Congress. A special Congressional investigating committee claimed that the Secretary had invented the shortage. It was nothing more, said the committee, than “a shortage of surplus.”

Gasoline stations were now putting up signs advertising that they had no scarcity of fuel and urging motorists to “fill it up,” which drivers hastened to do. Ickes felt that he was being made to look like a fool. “I would not again be in favor of putting on restrictions until the people had actually felt the pinch,” he angrily complained in private. “It is impossible to carry the American people along with you on a program of caution to forestall a threatening position.” Prevention, whether it be an ounce or a pound, was bad politics, he concluded. Thereafter, Ickes resolved never again to go too far out on oil issues.

Yet the threat of shortage again loomed when Germany declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor. U-boats immediately began to operate in American coastal waters, with devastating results. Their priority targets were oil tankers, easily recognizable by their distinctive profile. After a Cabinet meeting in January of 1942, Ickes warned the President that renewed tanker sinkings in the Atlantic would bring new pressures on supply, particularly in the Northeast. Still smarting, however, from the criticism that had rained down on him for his conservation program, he resolutely refused to do anything prophylactic. “In view of the hell that I got last Fall for foreseeing the possibility of such a situation and trying to prevent it, I do not intend to say anything about this publicly until it becomes a certainty. If a shortage actually occurs, I may be able to make the front page with lyrical stories of what I am going to do by way of rationing to take care of that shortage. The shortage itself can be attributed to God while I reap a harvest of praise for my lack of foresight.”6

Altogether, the number of tankers sunk in the first three months of 1942 was almost four times the number built. The U-boats seemed to operate with impunity along the entire coast. As one U-boat headed home from American waters, with eight sinkings to its credit, the submarine’s captain exultantly wrote in his war diary: “It is a pity that there were not twenty U-boats last night, instead of one. I am sure all would have found ample targets.”

The dismal toll of sinkings mounted. “The situation is desperate,” Ickes wrote to Roosevelt in late April 1942. Yet the initial American response to the U-boat onslaught was feeble. Tankers and other ships were urged to hug the coast; those that could fit took the Cape Cod and the Delaware-Chesapeake canals. The United States had neglected antisubmarine warfare and was unprepared. Onshore, American cities were making the job of sinking cargo ships even easier for the U-boats. They were brightly illuminated at night, thus providing perfect silhouettes of the tanker targets for the stalking submarines. Miami was the worst offender; six miles of its beachfront were lit up by neon lights. Hotel owners and the chamber of commerce insisted that the lights could not be doused; it was still the tourist season. Elsewhere along the coast, such as at Atlantic City, crowds would watch from the shore as the dark horizon at sea was suddenly illuminated. Another tanker had been hit.

Finally, some remedial action was taken. Outdoor lighting was doused on the eastern seaboard, and neighborhood wardens went on patrol to ensure that indoor lights were also out or—at least—the curtains drawn.7

Other steps were taken to counter the U-boat menace. Convoys were instituted along the East Coast, which gave tankers a greater degree of protection. But an even better option was to minimize the amount of oil that had to travel by tanker. An alternative to tanker shipment was put forward—the construction of a pipeline on a scale never before attempted, and of an unheard-of length, stretching from Texas to the East Coast. Clearly, the steady movement of oil through a pipeline at five miles per hour would be far safer than using seagoing tankers and far cheaper than using railroad tank cars. Initially turned down in the autumn of 1941 on grounds that it would use too much steel, the pipeline project, dubbed Big Inch, was hastily resuscitated after Pearl Harbor and tanker sinkings in American waters.

Construction finally began in August 1942, and what followed was one of the extraordinary feats of engineering in World War II. Nothing like it had ever been done before. The oil transportation and construction industries were mobilized to build a pipeline that would carry five times as much oil as a conventional one, a conduit that would stretch halfway across the country and require a plethora of newly designed equipment. Within a year and a half, by the end of 1943, Big Inch, 1,254 miles long, was carrying one-half of all the crude oil moving to the East Coast. Meanwhile, Little Inch—an even longer line, 1,475 miles—was built between April 1943 and March 1944 to carry gasoline and other refined products from the Southwest to the East Coast. At the beginning of 1942, just 4 percent of total supplies had arrived on the East Coast by pipeline; by the end of 1944, with Big Inch and Little Inch both completed and in operation, pipelines were carrying 42 percent of all oil.8

In the spring of 1942, however, construction had not yet begun on Big Inch; and the other measures taken against German U-boats hardly afforded any security. Moreover, the Allies faced a very determined and wily opponent in the ice-blooded Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of the German submarine force. Anything was fair game for him. “Rescue no one and take no one with you,” he ordered his crews. The main objective of his growing fleet, he said, was “to destroy more enemy tonnage than can be replaced by all Germany’s enemies put together.” The Germans also gained two other very significant advantages. They changed their code procedures, so that the British lost the ability to read the U-boat signals; and at the same time, they broke the ciphers that governed the movement of the Anglo-American convoys. The resulting destruction of Allied shipping was appalling. Once again looming before the Allies was one of their greatest fears: the choking off of the absolutely essential oil supplies to Britain from the Western Hemisphere.

The Battle of the Atlantic became even more dangerous in the second half of 1942. Improved and larger U-boats joined the German fleet, with a greatly expanded cruising range, greater depth capabilities, improved communications, and access to many of Britain’s ciphered convoy signals. In addition, Admiral Doenitz introduced Milchkuhs (“milk cows”), large underwater supply ships that could deliver diesel fuel as well as fresh food to the U-boats. The Allied losses at sea mounted. Month by month, Britain’s supply picture grew worse. For its part, the United States lost a quarter of its total tanker tonnage in 1942. Petroleum stocks were well below required safety levels in Britain, and London saw sharply rising demand ahead, both because of the requirements in North Africa and because of the prospect of an Allied invasion of Europe. Stalin, too, was making increasingly insistent demands for more oil.9

In mid-December, Churchill was told that there remained only about two months’ supply of fuel oil for ships, aside from a last-gasp emergency reserve. “This does not look at all good,” was his bleak comment. Naval forces were stretched very thin trying to protect the transatlantic shipping. In January, Churchill left England for Casablanca, where he and the British Chiefs of Staff met Roosevelt and the American Chiefs. The main topic of the rancorous discussion was an invasion of the European mainland. But all were agreed on one point, which was summed up by General Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. “The shortage of shipping,” he said, “was a stranglehold on all offensive operations, and unless we could effectively combat the U-boat menace we might not be able to win the war.”

Though the defeat of the German U-boats was a top Allied priority in 1943, the actual situation showed no quick sign of improvement. By the spring of that year, British oil stocks were at their lowest levels yet. In March, again operating with virtual impunity, the U-boats sank 108 ships. The Atlantic was so infested with the enemy submarines that evasion seemed impossible. “The Germans,” said the British Admiralty, “never came so near to disrupting communication between the New World and the Old as in the first twenty days of March, 1943.”

But in the last days of March, the scales tipped dramatically, and just in time. First, there was a decisive shift in the cryptanalytic balance; the Allies thoroughly broke the new U-boat codes, while at the same time they successfully closed off their own convoy ciphers to the Germans. Then the British and Americans added a new coordinated counteroffensive capability to the convoy system that included support groups designed to attack the U-boats. The Allies further improved their radar, and they also introduced newly developed longrange aircraft that could, at last, provide coverage over that part of the Atlantic previously inaccessible to air protection. The tables were abruptly and finally turned. In May 1943 alone, 30 percent of the U-boats at sea were lost. A chastened Admiral Doenitz was forced to report to Hitler: “We are facing the greatest crisis in submarine warfare, since the enemy, by means of new location devices …makes fighting impossible, and is causing us heavy losses.” On May 24, Doenitz ordered the U-boats to withdraw to safer areas. Though he denied it at the time, he was calling off the submarine campaign in the North Atlantic. Allied convoys—carrying their vital cargoes of oil, other goods, and troops—could now cross the Atlantic in reasonable safety.

A combination of technical innovation, intelligence, organization, new tactics—and persistence—finally assured an abundant flow of oil from America to Britain and on to Europe and the Soviet Union. The path was now clear for a two-front assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. After forty-five months of deadly warfare and mounting peril, the Battle of the Atlantic was over.10

Domestic Push

While the safety of oil transport had been the focal point of the war at sea, Harold Ickes was also strenuously trying to promote higher oil production in the United States. His hand was strengthened when he was promoted from Petroleum Coordinator to Petroleum Administrator for War. Since he was also still Secretary of the Interior, the Old Curmudgeon now wielded unprecedented power. Yet that power was far from absolute. Some forty or so other Federal agencies had a say in one part or another of the oil industry, and Ickes’s Petroleum Administration for War (PAW) was in a constant struggle with a number of them—particularly the War Production Board, which allocated steel and other materials; the Office of Price Administration, which set prices; and the War Shipping Administration, which controlled tankers. Ickes made continuing appeals to Roosevelt to muzzle the competing czars at the other wartime agencies and uphold his own authority.

Ickes was further constrained by the unwillingness of the American military to share in any detailed way its projected needs with the PAW. The British, who observed and reported on this reluctance to London, were surprised and puzzled. But the heart of the matter was simple—the American military did not trust civilians to keep secret its projected needs, from which could be inferred its plans. Ickes, caught in the middle of this conflict, looked at the British system with some envy. “On any oil matter, the British Government is a unit—Parliament, the Administration, the oil companies, the press,” he explained. “Over here, to the contrary, everyone is in everyone else’s hair. There is no unity. The British know it. They can’t help knowing it. Congress is investigating all the time.”

Despite all these roadblocks, the PAW gradually molded an effective government-industry combine. It sought an antitrust exemption from the Justice Department, vitally needed so that oil companies could talk to one another and coordinate operations and pool supplies. Justice, still in the midst of its antitrust suit against the major companies, was exceedingly reluctant to grant the exemption, but pressure was exerted by the White House until it finally found forgiveness and understanding in its juridical soul. About three-quarters of the executive and technical management of the PAW actually came out of the industry, which led, not surprisingly, to a good deal of criticism of Ickes. But he insisted that it was necessary to have competent people who understood how the oil business was conducted. The PAW was “flanked” by national and regional committees, organized by function (production, refining, and so forth) and also drawn from oil industry executives and managers. Thus, there was a two-way system of communication through which industry activities were directed and monitored.11

Overall, there was widespread support for the mission of the PAW, based upon the growing awareness of how critical oil would be to the war. Even so, the entire supply system frequently veered to the edge of shortage. At one point in the middle of winter, in February of 1944, New York was down to just two days of fuel oil supply. But each time, outright shortage was averted through adept emergency coordination and action by the PAW, and there was never a serious supply crisis in the United States—all the more remarkable considering how hard the system was worked.

Key to the success of the system, of course, was the availability of crude oil. While the United States entered the war with a large shut-in spare production capacity, no one could be sure how high the military demand would rise or how long the war would last. Moreover, concern was growing about America’s oil reserve base. There was no room for complacency or even for much confidence. Thus, the PAW strove to increase production and maintain and expand capacity. It used its power to deny or grant allocation of drilling supplies to force oil men to adopt improved petroleum engineering methods. It also fought to assure that explorers could deduct drilling costs as intangible expenses from their taxes, as one way to encourage additional exploration.

But the PAW’s biggest battle, on the production side, was to get the Office of Price Administration to raise prices to stimulate exploration and production activity. There the PAW met only limited success, winning increases in prices for California heavy oil, to stimulate production to meet the U.S. Navy’s needs in the Pacific, and for stripper wells, which produced less than ten barrels per day. But on the central issue, the Office of Price Administration, fearful of inflation, rebuffed Ickes’s efforts to get an across-the-board thirty-five cent increase in all oil prices, above the official $1.19 ceiling. The entire struggle over prices, as could be expected, left the industry with a deep distaste for the Office of Price Administration; one oil-industry spokesman dismissed it as a “commie outfit.”

Whatever the complaints, America’s overall production record was very good: from 3.7 million barrels per day in 1940 to 4.7 million barrels per day in 1945—a 30 percent increase. With the estimated surplus capacity of 1 million barrels in 1940, the United States essentially called on its full reserve. But that was a more difficult task than it appeared, for when the oil field workers opened the valves all the way on the wells, they often found that actual production capacity was less than had been estimated. Moreover, existing wells naturally declined in output. So the industry had to work very hard to get production up and then to keep it there. And, to stay even, the industry had to maintain a high level of exploration. Altogether, between December 1941 and August 1945, the United States and its allies consumed almost 7 billion barrels of oil, of which 6 billion came from the United States. Its wartime output was equivalent to more than a quarter of all oil produced in the United States from the time of Colonel Drake’s well right down to 1941. Even so, if the total Allied call on United States oil had grown larger, there would have been real pressure on the available supplies.12

Rationing—Through the Side Door

The other side of the oil equation in the United States was consumption, and here occurred the biggest political battles. Efforts were made to get industrial users to switch from oil to coal. Homeowners who heated with oil were asked to keep their houses at sixty-five degrees during the day and fifty-five at night. President Roosevelt himself took a strong interest in the potential of America’s then largely underutilized natural gas resources. “I wish you would get some of your people to look into the possibility of using natural gas,” he wrote to Ickes in 1942. “I am told that there are a number of fields in the West and the Southwest where practically no oil has been discovered but where an enormous amount of natural gas is lying idle in the ground because it is too far to pipe to large communities.” But gasoline was the focus of contention. There were those who went out of their way to cooperate with the national need to reduce gasoline consumption. Never to be forgotten was the altruism of one Bea Kyle, a daredevil who worked at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. In 1942, she wrote to Harold Ickes to explain her line of work: “First I cover myself with gasoline and then gasoline is poured on top of the water in my portable tank after which both are ignited and I leap into the flaming tank.” She wanted Ickes’s honest opinion whether her eighty-foot plunge “worked against defense” and should, therefore, be put on hold until the war was over.

“Without detracting materially from the spectacular character of your diving act,” an aide to Ickes wrote back helpfully, “you might be able to use a little less gasoline in your performance, or make a few less dives with the same result, so that it will reduce your consumption in the same proportion as recommended generally.” And, the aide added, “Your patriotic interest is appreciated.”

There were not many Bea Kyles. Gasoline use had become a national birthright over the preceding three decades, and few were willing to give it up unless they were forced to do so. In the spring of 1942, the first step was taken in that direction: A complete ban was imposed on the use of gasoline for auto racing. Then, in May, rationing was imposed on the East Coast—initially through the use of cards, which, like meal tickets, were punched at the service station. The cards were succeeded by coupons. Whatever the system, it stirred a great outcry of protest from all sides. The governor of Florida phoned Ickes and pleaded with him to postpone rationing so as not to crimp the tourists. People on the East Coast, who did not understand the problems of logistics and petroleum transportation, “knew for sure” that there were full tanks elsewhere in the country. The Roosevelt Administration was reluctant to blanket the whole country with rationing. In the wide open spaces of the West, there were not that many easy alternatives to the automobile for transportation.13

The Administration finally found a way into nationwide rationing through a side door—rubber. The Japanese capture of the East Indies and Malaya had cut off 90 percent of the natural rubber exported to the United States, while the synthetic rubber program had hardly begun to be implemented. As a result, the United States was gripped by a “rubber famine.” By rationing gasoline, and thus restricting driving, the civilian demand for tires could be cut, freeing the available rubber supplies for the armed forces. Therefore, in the name of rubber, gasoline could be rationed. But such a step, even in disguise, was something that had to have a very serious imprimatur. Thus, Roosevelt appointed an extremely august committee to sell the idea to Congress and to the public; the two members were the presidents of Harvard and MIT, and as chairman, none other than the venerable and revered Bernard Baruch.

There could not have been a more appropriate choice for this public relations job than Baruch. In Washington, Bernard Baruch was considered very serious business. He had enormous prestige; the Wall Street millionaire had been the great industrial mobilizer of World War I, and was now an adviser to Presidents and the nation’s semi-official Elder Statesman. “Public deference was universal,” recalled John Kenneth Galbraith, who, in his position as the nation’s chief price controller, tangled with Baruch. “At the same time private skepticism was also nearly obligatory.” The skepticism extended up to the Oval Office and to the man who had appointed Baruch to head the committee—“that old Poohbah” is the way Roosevelt had once described Baruch.

Nevertheless, Baruch could do the political job. He assured his ivory tower committeemen, the two university presidents, that he could take care of the practical problem—Congress. “Let me handle the Senators and fellows on the Hill, they’re mostly good friends of mine,” he said. “I’ll give a dinner for them some evening.” Many of the key Congressmen were not only friends but also regular recipients of what were, by the customs of the times, significant campaign contributions from Baruch, and they, in turn, were totally persuaded of his sagacity. The strategy worked. In September 1942, Baruch’s committee vigorously recommended that gasoline should be rationed on a nationwide basis to conserve rubber. The actual plan was, however, not implemented until after the 1942 Congressional elections. As it was, one hundred Congressmen from the West staged a protest against the new system. Presumably, they had not been invited to dinner.14

Rationing was supplemented by other measures, including a thirty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. There was even more outrage, however, when “nonessential driving” was banned in January 1943. But since no one could come up with a good definition of “nonessential driving,” that particular prohibition was abandoned a few months later. The rationing system provided for five grades of allocation, depending on need and function of the vehicle and driver. The alphabetical stickers displayed on automobile windshields became a status symbol for the lucky motorists whose driving was considered essential. The most fortunate were those with an X—doctors, clergymen, some repairmen, and government officials—who had unlimited rights to purchase gasoline. A degree of shame was felt by those who fell into categories deemed less important to the war effort. The “basic” A ration, which was what most people got, provided—depending on the availability of supplies and the region—for anywhere between one and a half and four gallons a week. Not surprisingly, the system gave rise to a black market in coupons, real and counterfeit, particularly in the big cities on the East Coast. Still, civilian gasoline use was substantially reduced; the average consumption per passenger vehicle was 30 percent less in 1943 than in 1941. Ickes was right; Americans, who had balked at voluntary conservation, accepted enforced rationing of gasoline, along with restrictions on their consumption of sugar, butter, and meat. After all, as was said so often, “There’s a war on.”15

The organization of production and consumption of oil in the United States was only part of the larger international system, jointly improvised and managed by the United States and Britain. It was a system that took crude oil from the American Southwest, refined it and moved it to the Northeast by ship or tank, or later by pipeline, transported it across the Atlantic, and then saw that it was delivered where it was needed, whether to the storage tanks at the air bases in Britain, or into the five-gallon cans that went to the Allied fighting men at the front, or into the railroad tank cars at Murmansk and Archangel, the Soviet Union’s ports on the Barents Sea. No less urgent were the needs of the Pacific theater, which had to be supplied in a similar procession moving westward. The Americans and the British ran this system through a number of formal and informal arrangements. They worked on the principle that, in each theater of war, one or the other would have complete responsibility for supplying the troops and air forces of both countries. Thus, in the United Kingdom and the Middle East, the British filled the Americans’ gas tanks; in the Pacific and in North Africa, after the Allied invasion in late 1942, the United States had responsibility for fueling all forces.

The problems of coordination in a global war were immense. Supplies had to be allocated among the hotly contending priorities: Europe, North Africa, the Pacific, and the domestic American economy. Tankers had to serve competing demands of the Atlantic and the Pacific, and of the East Coast of the United States. Moreover, transport and supplies had to be matched, and there were constant and costly mix-ups; tankers would arrive at ports and there would be no ready supplies, or the supplies would be waiting and no tanker would appear. Yet, as difficult and contentious as all these matters were, the system that evolved served the Allies very well.16


Before World War II, the American military had not anticipated that petroleum supplies might pose any particular problem. The Army did not even have any records of how much oil it used. There was incomplete comprehension of how fundamental would be the difference between the First World War and the Second. The former was a static war; the latter, a war of motion. (It was Stalin who had offered a toast at a banquet in Churchill’s honor in the darkest days of the war: “This is a war of engines and octanes. I drink to the American auto industry and the American oil industry.”) And thus, it would be a war of much greater petroleum consumption; at the peaks, the American forces in Europe used one hundred times more gasoline in World War II than in World War I. The typical American division in World War I used 4,000 horsepower; in World War II, 187,000 horsepower.

Indeed, it was only the planning for the 1942 invasion of North Africa that opened the Army’s eyes to the full significance of the petroleum factor, and thereafter, in response, a centralized, disciplined supply organization came into being. After all, about half the total tonnage shipped from the United States during the war was oil. The Quartermaster Corps calculated that when an American soldier went overseas to fight, to support him in his job he required sixty-seven pounds of supplies and equipment, of which half was petroleum products.

The Army’s new oil supply organization pushed a number of innovations to facilitate the flow and use of petroleum. It moved to standardize products—specifically, one all-purpose motor fuel and one all-purpose diesel fuel. It adopted a special narrow portable pipeline system, complete with pumps, developed by Shell, which enabled oil, in a combat area, to be transported efficiently toward the front, rather than be moved by truck. But one of the most significant developments was the eventually ever-present five-gallon gasoline can. The Army discovered that its ten-gallon can was unwieldy and too heavy to be handled by one man. The Germans used a five-gallon can. In the quest for a more manageable receptacle, the Americans, joined by the British, based their design for a five-gallon can on captured German cans. Ironic respect was paid to the German original in the nicknames they adopted; the “blitz can”; and, more commonly, the “jerrycan.” But the Americans made an important innovation in the German design. The German troops had to use a funnel, which allowed dirt to enter the engines of their vehicles. The Americans added a built-in pouring spout, which kept the dirt out.

One of the biggest technical disappointments of the war was PLUTO—the acronym for “Pipeline Under the Ocean.” This underwater pipeline system was designed to link the British side of the English Channel to the French. The aim was, after the invasion of Western Europe, to supply fully half of the fuel needs for Allied forces on their advance through France and into Germany. The pipeline was built, but serious technical problems were compounded by installation mishaps. As a result, PLUTO’s flow during the critical months after the invasion was no more than a trickle. On average, from D-Day in June 1944 to October 1944, just 150 barrels per day moved through PLUTO—a minuscule one-sixth of one percent of what Allied forces in Western Europe consumed during that period.17

Perhaps the most daunting challenge of all in the Allied fuel chain was the supply of 100-octane aviation gasoline. Developed in the early and mid-1930s, primarily by Shell researchers in Holland and the United States, 100-octane fuel made possible higher aircraft performance—greater bursts of speed, more power, quicker takeoffs, longer range, greater maneuverability—than the 75- or 87-octane fuels customarily used. Tests demonstrated a 15 to 30 percent increase in power over existing fuels, plus large fuel savings, which would make possible longer-range aircraft. But before the actual outbreak of war, there was no significant market for the much more expensive fuel, and in its absence, some companies, notably Shell, followed by Jersey, took major risks in making large investments in 100-octane research and capacity. Shell put much of the 100-octane gasoline that it did manufacture into storage.

But the eruption of war suddenly meant that there was a market—and an important one. The advantages of 100-octane gasoline were proved in the Battle of Britain in 1940, when the 100-octane-powered British Spitfires outperformed the Messerschmitt 109s, fueled on 87-octane gasoline. Some attributed Britain’s critical edge and victory in that life-and-death air battle to the 100-octane gasoline. But special expensive refining facilities were required to make the high-performance fuel, and only small amounts of it were actually available. Production targets were set and then raised again and again. Two aviation petroleum committees—one in Washington and one in London—were established to control the disposition of the limited quantities of 100-octane gasoline among all the military claimants. Despite the chronic shortage, sometimes the allocators found they had to be wasteful. During the U-boat threat, they would dispatch three cargoes to a destination, with the hope that at least one would get through.

Almost all of the Allies’ needs for 100-octane fuel had to be met by American production—almost 90 percent of the total by 1944. But production could not keep up with the demand. “From present outlook, the situation will get steadily worse,” Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson wrote despairingly to Ickes in April 1943. “I see no relief in sight except the most drastic action.” The Americans responded with a huge construction and engineering program, one of the largest and most complex industrial undertakings of the war. Fortunately, in the late 1930s, a new refining technology—catalytic cracking—was under development, principally by a Frenchman named Eugene Houdry and by Sun Oil. The first significant advance over the thermal cracking technique developed by William Burton three decades earlier, catalytic cracking facilitated the production of large amounts of 100-octane gasoline. Without that technology, the United States simply could never have hoped to come anywhere close to meeting the demand for aviation fuel. But when the United States entered the war, limited catalytic cracking operations were only just beginning, and seemed beyond doing on a large scale. The requirements were huge—the units would be up to fifteen stories tall and vastly more expensive than traditional refining installations. Yet thereafter, a multitude of catalytic cracking units were built across the country in double time, with what seemed to be hardly any lapse in going from initial design and pilot plant experimentation to full-scale operations.

Altogether, as part of the 100-octane campaign, dozens and dozens of plants and special facilities were built, and many existing ones were converted to produce 100-octane fuel. The PAW and the oil industry constantly struggled with competing agencies and interests for the steel and other goods necessary to meet their construction goals—which were continually raised, as more and more output was required. On top of this, all the aviation fuel plants had to be melded together, to be run as one giant integrated combine, with the various components shifted around the country, among different companies, in order to maximize output and, in the words of Ickes’s agency, “eke out the greatest possible number of barrels of product.” Continued improvements in production processes and in the fuel itself were pushed. As a result, pilots gained additional surges of power with which to overtake enemy aircraft, and heavily laden bombers were able to get off the runway.

Though, recurrently, it seemed that the Allies were about to run out of 100-octane fuel, increased production miraculously kept pace with rising need. Demand by 1945 was seven times higher than had been projected at the beginning of the war. Yet that requirement was met. By 1945, the United States—which had total production capability for less than 40,000 barrels per day in 1940—was producing 514,000 barrels per day of 100-octane fuel. As one general explained, government and industry “squeezed it out of a hat.”18

“The Unforgiving Minute”

“At no time did the Services lack for oil in the proper quantities, in the proper kinds and at the proper places,” the Army-Navy Petroleum Board pronounced proudly after the war. “Not a single operation was delayed or impeded because of a lack of petroleum products.” Though that judgment was for the most part true, there was an exception—one shuddering moment when the system failed.

By the spring of 1944, the pendulum was clearly swinging in the Allies’ favor in the war against Germany. American and British troops had landed in Italy, which proceeded to quit the war. The Russians were driving in on the eastern front. Then on June 6, 1944, D-Day, Allied forces hit the beaches of Normandy, opening the invasion of Western Europe. But immediately, the long and carefully wrought plans of the Allies went awry. The invading armies found themselves, contrary to plans and expectations, pinned in Normandy much longer than they had expected. The Germans, very much taken by surprise, managed to hold the invading forces for a time, even though shortages of fuel greatly constrained their ability to move reinforcements rapidly up to the front. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the German commander, was forced to issue the order: “Move your equipment with men and horses—don’t use gasoline except in battle.” Then, on July 25, 1944, the Allied armies finally burst out of the German ring, and the Germans, disorganized and undersupplied, fell back. Now it was the Allies who were surprised—but this time by the ease and speed with which they could rush forward in hot pursuit of the Germans.

No force moved more hotly in pursuit than the Third Army under the leadership of General George Patton, Jr., who led the breakout. Driven, dynamic, impulsive, and volcanic in his anger (the last perhaps the result of injuries to his head while playing polo), Patton had been barely able to contain himself in the face of what he regarded as timid and overcautious Allied strategy since the June 6 landing. During July 1944, he had written a poem expressing his frustration:

For in war just as in loving you must always keep on shoving
Or you’ll never get your just reward…
So let us do real fighting, boring in and gouging, biting.
Let’s take a chance now that we have the ball.
Let’s forget those fine firm bases in the dreary shell-raked spaces,
Let’s shoot the works and win! yes win it all.

General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, would publicly describe Patton as “a great leader for exploiting a mobile situation.” Privately, while acknowledging his considerable strengths as an operational commander, Eisenhower believed Patton lacked that critical ability required of an overall commander—to see the big picture. Indeed, Eisenhower questioned Patton’s ability to function in a team, and even his balance. Patton was too ready to gamble, too prone to “ill-advised action,” said Eisenhower. “I am thoroughly weary of your failure to control your tongue,” he warned Patton directly, “and have begun to doubt your all-round judgment, so essential in high military position.”

Yet, despite his deep reservations, Eisenhower most definitely wanted Patton for the invasion. As he wrote to General Marshall, Patton had fighting qualities that “we cannot afford to lose unless he ruins himself.” So long as he was “under a man who is sound and solid, and who has enough sense to use Patton’s good qualities without being blinded by his love of showmanship and histrionics,” he would do fine. In short, Patton represented a special form of insurance—embodied in “the extraordinary and ruthless driving power that Patton can exert at critical moments.” For, Eisenhower added, “There is always the possibility that this war, possibly even this theater, might yet develop a situation where this admittedly unbalanced but nevertheless aggressive fighting man should be rushed into the breach.” And, thus, to save the day.19

Certainly Patton’s force of personality, his determination, his ability to project purpose and confidence, and his “winningness” all made him a superb leader in the field, and if his character did not necessarily win the confidence of his superiors, it did engender fierce loyalty in the troops under his command. He knew the importance of creating a legend about himself—be it the two revolvers, one pearl-handled, that Patton wore on his hips, or the nickname “Old Blood-and-Guts” that he had bestowed on himself in his unsuccessful bid in the 1930s to become Commandant of Cadets at West Point. But beneath the tough and profane exterior and the iron self-discipline, there was the Patton whose stomach knotted up before battle and who had published two volumes of poetry.

Patton was as much a master of mobile warfare as Rommel and he fretted while waiting his chance for glory. “I must get in and do something spectacularly successful if I am to make good,” he complained. And he did, proving Eisenhower right about his special talents. Revolvers on his hips, he led the breakout from Normandy at an astonishing speed; he covered a vast territory in a month—almost five hundred miles from Brest to Verdun, liberating most of France north of the Loire. Like Rommel, Patton was contemptuous of the quartermasters. His forces pursued any unconventional methods they could think of to ensure their fuel supplies, which became increasingly short as the Third

Army’s lines were extended. Some of Patton’s troops impersonated members of different units to get supplies; others hijacked trains and truck convoys or commandeered fuel that supply trucks needed for the return journey. Indeed, Patton even sent spy planes flying back to the rear to spot gasoline supplies that could be seized.

Toward the end of August 1944, however, fuel was becoming a very serious constraint on the Allied advance. There was no physical shortage of gasoline in France. The supplies were simply in the wrong place—back in Normandy, far behind the lines—and there was an immense logistical problem in getting the fuel to the front. In the parlance of supply, the Allies had moved “260 logistical planning days” in just twenty-one days. Railways would have been the efficient way to move fuel forward, but there were no appropriate lines. The endless convoys of fuel trucks, routed in a special one-way system right across France, could not keep up; as the supply lines lengthened, the trucks had to use proportionately more and more of their own fuel supply to get to the front and back. In consequence of their logistical problems, the fast-moving Allied armies simply outran their gasoline supplies. The same thing had happened to Rommel when his forces had raced across North Africa in 1942. Patton fumed about the situation. “At the present time,” he wrote to his son on August 28, “my chief difficulty is not the Germans but gasoline. If they would give me enough gas, I could go anywhere I want.” The next day, he noted in his diary, “I found that, for unknown reasons, we had not been given our share of gas—140,000 gallons short. This may be an attempt to stop me in a backhand manner, but I doubt it.”20

Despite Patton’s suspicion, the other units were also short of fuel. And, at that moment, Eisenhower, as overall commander of the Allied forces, faced a critical decision: whether to direct the bulk of available supplies to Patton’s Third Army or give the fuel to the United States First Army, to the north of the Third Army, in support of the British Twenty-first Army Group, under General Montgomery, which was closest to the coast. Was this the moment, Eisenhower had to ask himself, to forsake his own “broad front” strategy—all flanks protected—and instead go for broke and let Patton and the Third Army try to punch through the Siegfried Line, the Nazi’s West Wall, into Germany itself? Or was it more prudent to let Montgomery first capture Antwerp, to assure a first-class supply port and avoid further attenuating the supply lines? There was still a third choice, the one that Montgomery argued vigorously for—a huge forty-division phalanx under his own command that would break through to the Ruhr and grind Germany into defeat.

As Eisenhower struggled with his decision, Patton was raring to go. “We have, at this time, the greatest chance to win the war ever presented,” he wrote in his diary. “If they will let me move on…we can be in Germany in ten days…. It is such a sure thing that I fear these blind moles don’t see it.” But Eisenhower, attuned to the larger requirements of politics and coalition warfare and in particular to the tense relationship with the brittle Montgomery, decided on a compromise, a splitting of forces, and one that sent the critically needed gasoline to the First Army, in support of Montgomery, and not to Patton’s Third Army.

Down to a half-day supply of gasoline, Patton was furious. He appeared, “bellowing like an angry bull,” at the headquarters of General Omar Bradley, commander of the American forces. “We’ll win your goddam war if you’ll keep Third Army going,” he roared at Bradley. “Dammit, Brad, just give me 400,000 gallons of gasoline, and I’ll put you inside Germany in two days.”21

Patton would not easily accept the limitation on his supplies. This was the critical moment, the one opportunity to push and shove, to ruthlessly drive on, to end the war quickly, to meet his destiny—and glory. He could barely contain his anger and frustration. “No one realizes the terrible value of the ‘unforgiving minute’except me,” he wrote in his diary. “We got no gas because, to suit Monty, the First Army must get most of it.” He ordered his units to drive on until they ran out of fuel “and then get out and walk.” He wrote to his wife: “I have to battle for every yard but it is not the enemy who is trying to stop me, it is ‘They’…. Look at the map! If I could only steal some gas, I could win this war.”

On August 30, the supply to the Third Army was reduced to less than a tenth of its normal level. Nor, it was told, would it get any more until September 3. The next day, August 31, Patton’s forces reached the Meuse River. The Third Army could go no further. Its gas tanks were empty. “My men can eat their belts,” Patton told Eisenhower, “but my tanks have gotta have gas.”

Montgomery’s forces captured Antwerp on September 4. “I now deem it important,” Eisenhower noted in his own diary the next day, “to get Patton moving once again.” And, thereafter, Patton did get more fuel. But the minute passed was to prove most unforgiving; the few days that had elapsed had given the Germans critical time to regroup. At the very beginning of September, Hitler at last modified his “no retreat” order so that German units could fall back, reform, and establish a defensive line. Patton’s forces pushed beyond the Meuse, but were stalled at the Moselle River—now no longer by lack of gasoline but by the much stiffened resistance of the Germans. Nine months of bitter and costly warfare would follow. And when the Germans mounted one massive last-ditch counterattack, the Russians, not the Americans, took Berlin.

In the final months of the war, Patton pushed through Germany and rode on as far as Pilsen, in Czechoslovakia. Yet the “unforgiving minute” had denied him his ultimate moment of glory on the battlefield. In December 1945, eight months after the end of the fighting in Europe, the life of the master of mobile warfare came to an unglorious end when his chauffeured limousine collided with a U.S. Army truck on a German road.22

Did the Allies let slip the critical opportunity to bring the war to a swift conclusion? The question was bitterly debated at the time, and long after. Of the million casualties the Allied forces suffered in liberating Western Europe, fully three-quarters occurred after the September check on Patton’s advance. Many millions more died as a result of military action and in the German concentration camps in the last eight months of the war. Moreover, if the Allies had broken through into Germany from the West earlier, the postwar map of Europe would have been drawn quite differently, for Soviet power would not have projected so far into the heart of Europe.

For Eisenhower, it had been an immensely difficult decision, one made in fleeting time, with poor information, in the face of high uncertainty and high risks. The cost of acceding to Patton could have been very great, threatening the very foundations of the Allied coalition at a critical moment, leaving the entire Allied Army in a poorly supplied position, and putting the Third Army into a highly exposed position. There were already reports of a German Army building on Patton’s flank. In his memoirs of the war in Europe, Eisenhower replied, with diplomatic tact but nevertheless pointedly, to Patton’s accusations that he had made the wrong decision. Patton simply could not see the big picture. To Eisenhower, the overall risks had been enormous, and the likelihood of failure of Patton’s plan was too great. “In the late summer days of 1944 it was known to us that the German still had disposable reserves within his own country,” he wrote. “Any idea of attempting to thrust forward a small force, bridge the Rhine, and continue on into the heart of Germany was completely fantastic.” Even if it had gotten through, such a force would have grown smaller and smaller as it dropped off units to protect its flanks. Eisenhower stood by the judgment he had made in those last days of August 1944: “Such an attempt would have played into the hands of the enemy” and the result, for the Allies, would have been “inescapable defeat.”23

Others who examined the evidence came to a different conclusion: that the mistake was in splitting the armies, instead of concentrating all Allied forces under Montgomery and relentlessly pushing through to the Ruhr and on to Berlin. Patton and his troops would have been a powerful part of that huge phalanx. If that push had been successful, the result would have been an early end to the carnage in Europe.

One who gave long thought to the entire question was Basil Liddell Hart, the eminent British military strategist and historian. It was his writings after the First World War, with the concept of the “expanding torrent,” that gave him claim to being a father of mechanized, mobile warfare and the inspirer, ironically, of the blitzkrieg. Shortly before his death in 1970, Liddell Hart delivered his considered judgment about Patton’s strategy. He agreed with Patton; those days at the end of August 1944 had been the “unforgiving minute.” The Germans were still in shock, unprepared; not one bridge on the Rhine had yet been readied for demolition. A powerful punch by Patton—shooting the works, in the words of Patton’s poem—could well have caused the disintegration and defeat of the defending German armies. “The best chance of a quick finish,” Liddell Hart concluded, “was probably lost when the ‘gas’ was turned off from Patton’s tanks in the last week of August, when they were 100 miles nearer to the Rhine, and its bridges, than the British.”24

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