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World War 2 and the Resource of the 20th Century: Oil, War, and the History of our Energetic Era

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Dr Dan Tamir

Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective.’ Over the coming weeks, we will be posting blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.

Barely imaginable in the late nineteenth century, cinema became the medium defining twentieth-century art; first domesticated millennia ago, industrially reared chickens became the typical food of the twentieth century. Of course, artistic images and tame birds were known to humanity for a long time. However, it was the twist in their production and consumption that changed our world.

In a similar vein, the two World Wars were the wars of the twentieth century, and petroleum was the natural resource that defined them. While humans have waged war from time immemorial, and petroleum was known already to the ancient Greeks, it was the introduction of that material as fuel which made modern war what it is. In fact, that introduction created modern war.

A B-24D Liberator flying over a burning oil refinery at Ploesti, Rumania, 1 August 1943. (Source: © IWM (UPL 15565))

The twentieth century has been described as an ‘Age of Extremes,’ and this description may serve us well here, both militarily and energetically. The two World Wars were the biggest, most encompassing, and most lethal wars the world has ever seen. Petroleum, for its part, is the most condense and versatile source of energy humans ever put their hands on. Indeed, while nuclear power is more condensed, it is much more difficult to extract and use and while coal is much easier to use, but also less condense. Used for producing a variety of plastic materials, the vast bulk of oil was and is used for fueling motors. The introduction of internal combustion engines based on distillates of petroleum transformed mobility: trains and ships became much faster and easier to operate once their fueling was switched from coal to petroleum while tanks, aeroplanes and submarines could practically not exist without it. Indeed, that petroleum made an extreme change in warfare.

The introduction of petroleum into modern warfare, however, was not a single event but a process, which can be roughly divided into two steps. Qualitatively and quantitatively, these steps may be represented by the First and the Second World Wars.

Qualitatively, the wide introduction of oil to the battlefield took place during the later years of the First World War: submarine operations, tanks on assault, air-raids – all these were implemented on a considerable scale during the years 1916 to 1918. If we would have asked an experienced general in 1914 whether he can imagine a war without petroleum, his answer might have certainly been positive. In 1918, the situation was different.

The vast majority of combatants during the First World War drank their cups of misery and pain the old way: they were sent to the front by coal-fueled trains, walked by foot and dug their trenches with shovels; and while they might have seen some tanks on the ground or airplanes in the air, they were much more likely to live next to some of the tens of millions of mules and horses used for logistics and armed operations. However, petroleum was already there.

The quantitative shift towards an all-out petroleum driven war, though, took place only later, during the Second World War. Most of the technologies used during that war were based on techniques and inventions already presented during First World War. Indeed, the aeroplanes were bigger and faster, the submarines dived deeper and had a longer operational range, the tanks were heavier and better equipped, and all were much more abundant, as substantial industrial infrastructures – in the UK, the US, Germany and the USSR – were mobilised to produce more of these machines. However, this widening of the war effort – as well as the ever-growing amounts of petroleum globally available from newly discovered and developed oil fields – was quantitative rather than qualitative by its nature (essential exceptions to that rule were modern radio communications and, of course, the nuclear bomb). Moreover, the mules and horses? They played a role even in this war, though on a smaller scale.

As the belligerents of the First World War learned and internalised the lessons of that conflict, they were fully aware of the strategic importance of petroleum for the war effort. German diplomats were aware of the importance of good relations with the Romanian government, and German generals took the oil-rich Caucasus as one of their central aims in the eastern front during the Summer of 1941. For their part, Japanese planners took consideration of coal and oil on the continent. On the side of the allies, the British government knew very well how crucial it was to keep a hold on the oil in the Persian Gulf to secure the sea route to India; the United States, on their part, supplied the allies side with huge – practically unlimited – quantities of petroleum. By the end of the war, German engineers were working on converting coal into gasoline, whereas their Japanese colleagues were trying – with partial success – to distil gasoline for aeroplanes out of pine bark. The allies, on the other hand, were virtually swimming in crude.

Japanese oil going up in thick clouds of smoke during carrier-borne aircraft attack on Palembang refineries. (Source: © IWM (A 29242))

The victorious allies did not limit their incorporation of oil into their strategic plans with the aim of defeating the Axis. While the Soviets made sure that great reserves of petroleum in Eurasia would remain under their direct or indirect control, the US-brokered deals with other players who were then making their first steps on the global stage. It is no coincidence that on his way back home from Yalta, in February 1945, the US President, Franklin Roosevelt stopped in Egypt to meet the ruler of central Arabia, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, securing US (and by proxy also the UK) interests in Middle East oil. To paraphrase on a famous Second World War phrase coined on the other side of northern Africa, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, lasting until our very days.

Moreover, so, the Second World War, its implementation of combustion technology and the agreements brokered by its end shaped the geopolitical reality of the post-war era: the era of petroleum in the world's history. From that historical moment until today, oil is a push and a pull factor in many – if not all – armed conflicts. Oil is a pull factor, for gaining control of it or securing its constant and flawless flow caused political actors to engage in either inter-states military operations (the Iraq wars probably make the most explicit example) or intra-state armed conflicts (think of Nigeria or Libya for instance). Oil is also a push factor, as it drives practically every bit, nut, or bolt of modern military machines.

When will this era of oil end? This is a fair question, which is hard to answer. Since oil is a non-renewable, depleting resource, at a certain point, we should start running out if it, after what is commonly called ‘peak oil.’ Future wars after that moment will most likely look different. However, this is an issue for another post.

Dr Dan Tamir is an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government, Ben Gurion University of the Negev where is bridging the intellectual gap between political and environmental history. He holds a PhD (2013) and MSc (2007) from the University of Zurich and a BA (2003) from The Hebrew University. During the past five years, he was a guest researcher at the Humboldt University in Berlin and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently involved in two research projects. The first examines the role of petroleum in the global political history of the 20th century while the second explores the history of the biological control of pests.

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