EGEE 120
Oil: International Evolution

The Prize Chapter 19: The Allies’ War


The Prize Chapter 19: The Allies’ War

Consider the following questions:

  • How central was oil in the war?
  • Why do we consider oil a strategic commodity?
  • What did you think of Tokyo Rose?
  • How is gasoline different during the war?
  • What did you think of Patton? And, could he have shortened the war?
  • Did Eisenhower make the right decision?

Britain’s Oil Position and the End of Deterding

In 1937, before the outbreak of war and in anticipation of war, a special committee was formed to examine the possibility of Britain adopting an “oil from coal” synthetic fuels strategy similar to what Germany had done in WWI. The strategy was rejected, as importing through many ports was deemed less vulnerable than easily bombed hydrogenation plants. Besides, it would have been more costly compared to the cheaper and readily available oil. Also, 85% of Britain’s domestic refining marketing was in the hands of three western/friendly companies, Shell, Anglo-Iranian, and Standard Oil of New Jersey’s (SONJ) British subsidiary, and two of these had their home in Britain. The British government also decided in 1938 that in case of war the entire British oil industry would be run under one organization and not through three separate competing companies.

At the age of 66, in September 1939, Churchill was brought back as the First Lord of the Admiralty after Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and he subsequently became Prime Minister in 1940. The British began to worry about the future of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group as it feared the power of Deterding under Nazi influence. There was the risk that the company could pass under the Nazi influence as Deterding had developed two infatuations in the mid-1930s - first for a young German woman (his secretary) and then for Adolf Hitler. In fact, in 1935, Deterding initiated discussions with the German government about Shell providing oil to Germany. This caused a lot of concern. However, Deterding soon lost a lot of control in the Shell group as his grip on the company slipped. He retired at the end of 1936 and acted on both infatuations: divorcing his second wife to marry his German secretary and moving to live on an estate in Germany and encouraging European countries to cooperate with the Nazis. Deterding, unfortunately, acted in his last years to undermine what would have otherwise been a fine and impressive reputation as an “international oil man.” He died in 1939, 6 months before the war, and most of his stocks were quickly distributed and passed to the other British holders, thus reducing the potential risk of Nazi control.

As soon as the war began, British oil companies merged activities into the Petroleum Board – basically creating a national monopoly as had been planned. Issues facing Britain at that time were global in nature and included fear of British supplies from Southeast Asia being curtailed by a Japanese invasion, Romanian oil having gone to the Germans, and the Germans having captured France’s oil stockpile. Fears of oil shortage led to rationing being imposed on recreational vehicles in Britain, which led to a big boom in bicycling. Under the threat of German invasion, 17,000 gasoline stations in England were shut down, leaving 2,000 stations that could at least be defended.

Americans Fuel Britain’s War Needs

The two critical questions of importance to Britain for war with the Germans were whether oil would be available and if they could pay for it. The United States was responsible for two-thirds of total world production and, therefore, the answer to whether oil would be available was yes. To help Britain overcome the question of payment, on March 1941, the Lend-Lease was instituted. This removed the problem of finance as a constraint on American supply to Britain, since, with the Lend-Lease, American oil could now be lent and repaid later. The neutrality legislation which had placed restrictions on the shipment of supplies was also gradually lifted to help loosen restrictions on shipment of supplies to Britain. Thus, by spring 1941, all the important steps had been taken to ensure an adequate flow of oil from America to Britain.

Black and White headshot of Harold L. Ickes
Harold L. Ickes served as the Secretary of the Interior for 13 years during the administrations of US Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In May 1941, even while the US was not yet in the war, Roosevelt appointed Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to the additional position of Petroleum Coordinator for National Defense, becoming once again the nation’s top oil man, or Oil Czar. Ickes had to turn around an industry that was coping with a surplus to one that would maximize output and avert shortage. He had a huge liability, as the oil industry detested him from the previous encounters. While he had come to their aid in 1933, he subsequently had become very critical of the industry. Mobilizing the oil industry into one giant organization under government direction had been done quickly and efficiently in Britain but turned out to be different and difficult in the US. Ickes, however, managed to work closely and pragmatically with the industry and succeeded in disarming the hostility and ensuring effective cooperation in mobilizing the industry.

The Battle of the Atlantic and the German U-Boats

The wide expanse of the Atlantic made supply lines very vulnerable as targets. German U-boats disorganized shipping, and among their favorite targets of attack were the readily recognizable oil tankers. The success of these attacks terrified the British and caused a serious oil supply situation as in the month of July 1941, there were only five weeks of motor gasoline stocks and two months of fuel for the Royal Navy. To ensure sufficient fuel for the British, even though the real reason was not made public, Ickes launched a voluntary conservation campaign and even sought to reinstate the “gasoline-less Sundays” of WWI. It was feared that explaining the reason would yield valuable intelligence information to the Germans on the oil situation in Britain, and, without the justification and buy-in, it ended up being a flop. The US increased its patrols into the Atlantic and established bases in Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and Bermuda to counter the U-boats. Germany declared war on the US on December 11, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor, and sent devastating U-boats to patrol in American coastal waters.

The number of tankers sunk by U-boats in the first 3 months of 1942 alone was almost 4 times the number built. Tankers and other ships were urged to hug the coast, and those that could fit took the Cape Cod and Delaware Chesapeake canals. The U.S. clearly had neglected anti-submarine warfare and was unprepared for the onslaught. American cities’ night bright lights also helped to make the sinking of ships easier by providing perfect silhouettes of the tankers for the stalking U-boats. Efforts made to improve the situation included: outdoor lighting was reduced in the eastern seaboard, curtains were drawn to reduce indoor lights, convoys were instituted on the East Coast, and an alternative to tanker shipment, pipeline construction (dubbed Big Inch) from Texas to the East Coast, was initiated in August 1942. Within a year and a half of construction, Big Inch was carrying one-half of all crude moving East through its 1,254 miles by the end of 1943. Little inch, which was 1,475 miles, was built between April 1943 and March 1944 to carry gasoline and other refined products also from the Southwest to the East Coast. By the end of 1944, about 42% of all oil was transported to the east coast through pipelines compared to just 4% at the beginning of 1942.

Map shows Big & Little Inch pipelines, both meet at Little Rock. They go from TX to along top edge of KY and the bottom of PA to the east coast
The 'Big Inch' and 'Little Inch' pipeline construction.
Credit: Eaglespeak

The Germans had two significant advantages in the successful U-boat campaign. They changed their code procedures so that the British couldn’t read their U-boat signals while breaking the ciphers that governed the movement of Anglo-American convoys. The battle became even worse for the Americans with new, improved, and larger U-boats. In addition, the Germans introduced large underwater supply ships that could deliver fuel and food to the U-boats. These caused the Allied losses to mount significantly. For example, the U.S. lost 25% of its total tanker tonnage in 1942, and by mid-December, only about two months supply of fuel oil for ships was left. In 1943, the defeat of German U-boats was, therefore, made a top priority if there was going to be a shift in the conduct of the war. To illustrate the seriousness of the situation: in March, the U-boats sank 108 ships!

Black and white photo of a U-boat
German U-boat U-25.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The U-boats were overcome in the last days of March 1943. This caused a decisive shift in the battle. The Allies thoroughly broke the U-boat codes and successfully closed off their own convoy ciphers to the Germans. In addition, Americans added new counter-offensive capability to the convoy system and improved radar and development of long-range aircraft. With these developments, in May 1943, 30% of the U-boats at sea were lost, and by the end of May, the U-boats had withdrawn to safer areas, enabling Allied convoys to carry vital oil, etc., across the Atlantic in reasonable safety to Britain. Thus, after 45 months of deadly warfare and mounting danger, the Battle of the Atlantic was virtually over.

Oil Coordination in the Conduct of WWII

Harold Ickes’ hand was strengthened when he was promoted to Petroleum Administrator for War (PAW) from Petroleum Coordinator while still Secretary of the Interior. Even as PAW, Ickes realized that, unlike the case in Britain, coordinating unity among the many competing US forces (Congress, the Administration, the companies, the press, etc.) in the US was very difficult. He managed to gradually establish an effective government-industry partnership and sought antitrust exemption from the Justice Department. Although there were temporary shortages, there was never a serious oil supply crisis in the US. The overall production record in the US was quite good - from 1940-1945, America’s overall production increased by 30% from 3.7 million barrels per day to 4.7 million barrels per day. Meanwhile, between December 1941 and August 1945, the Allies consumed 7 billion barrels of oil, 6 billion of which came from the United States. It is also interesting to note that the wartime oil output was more than ¼ of all oil produced in the US from the time of Colonel Drake to 1941!

To accommodate the war oil output, consumption/rationing was considered. Efforts were made to get industrial users to switch from oil to coal, and President Roosevelt took strong interest in the potential of America’s largely underutilized natural gas resources. However, gasoline was still the focus of contention. The Administration wanted to ration gasoline, but there was a  public outcry. The back door argument used for rationing gasoline was that it would decrease and conserve demand for rubber, and thus make more rubber supplies available for troops, since the Japanese capture of East Indies and Malaya had cut off 90% of the natural rubber exported to the US. Bernard Baruch was placed in charge of lobbying to Congress to implement the nationwide rationing to conserve rubber.

Gasoline rationing involved keeping houses at 65 degrees F during the day and 55 degrees F at night. Five grades of alphabetical stickers were placed in windshields giving the status symbol for motorists: X was for doctors, clergymen, some repairmen, and government officials. A – “basic” ration, was what most people got. There was also a ban on gasoline for auto racing and “nonessential driving.” Rationing was also supplemented with a 35 mph limit. America, which had rejected voluntary conservation, now accepted enforced rationing because there was a war. With these changes, the average consumption per passenger vehicle was 30% less in 1943 than in 1941.

During the war, the production and consumption of oil were organized not only at the national level but at the international or global level. For example, crude oil produced from American Southwest was refined and moved to the Northeast by ship, tank, or pipeline and transported across the Atlantic and delivered to wherever it was needed. In the UK and the Middle East, the British filled Americans’ gas tanks, and in the Pacific and North Africa, the U.S. had responsibility for fueling all sources. As difficult and contentious as these matters were, it evolved into a system that served the Allies fairly well.

The Attack on Normandy

By spring 1944, the pendulum was swinging in the Allies' favor. Italy quit the war when the Allied troops landed in the country. Meanwhile, the Russians were driving in from the east. On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), the Allied troops hit the beaches of Normandy, opening up the invasion of Western Europe. On July 25, 1944, the Allied armies finally burst through the German ring, causing the Germans, who were disorganized and under-supplied, to fall back. No force moved faster than the U. S. Third Army under General Patton, Jr., nicknamed “Old Blood-and-Guts,” and who engendered fierce loyalty in the troops under his command. Eisenhower, however, believed that while he had good military qualities, he failed to see the big picture. He was a master of mobile warfare as Rommel. His forces moved so fast they outran their gasoline supplies. When he requested more fuel, the overall commander of the Allied forces, Eisenhower, decided to send the critically needed fuel to the First Army and the British 21st Army Group under General Montgomery, and not to Patton’s Third Army. Patton was furious over the decision.

Black and white photos of 3 major generals on the left, and Field Marshall Mongomery on the right
US Army Generals Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, and George S. Patton, (left) and Field Marshall Montgomery, (right).
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Patton believed that if he had been given more gasoline, he would have broken into Germany in 10 days. Could Patton have done it? This is still open to debate, as he could have been open to a counter-attack. Was it worth a try? Possibly, as it could have saved many lives since the concentration camps were executing millions at that time. Out of the total of a million casualties, the Allies suffered in liberating Western Europe, nearly ¾ of the casualties happened after the September check on Patton’s advance. Could this have been avoided? Others also believe if the Allies had broken through the West earlier, Soviet influence would not have projected so far into Europe, as the postwar map of Europe would have been drawn differently. Unfortunately, in December 1945, 8 months after the fighting in Europe, George Patton was killed in a car accident when his limousine collided with a US Army truck on a German road.


Oil clearly was demonstrated to be essential in WWII as it played a significant role for the Army. Before WWII, the Army did not even keep records of its oil use. While WWI had been a static war (used 4,000 horsepower - hp), WWII was a war of motion (used 187,000 horsepower), and, at the peaks, the American forces in Europe used one hundred times more gasoline in WWII than in WWI. A number of innovations were also created to facilitate the use and flow of petroleum. The biggest technical disappointment, however, was PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean) to link the British and French sides of the English Channel. A simple innovation that had a profound effect on the conduct of the war was the 5-gallon gasoline can. This was based on an improved design on captured German cans that led to the common nicknames “jerrycan” and “blitz can.” The improvement over the German was an internal spout to replace the use of funnels and keep out dirt. These red 5-gallon cans, packed and transported in trucks for military operations, formed what was known as the Red Ball Express. Other innovations included the all-purpose motor fuel and all-purpose diesel fuel and the development of the 100 octane fuel, through catalytic cracking, for better aircraft performance. The 100 octane fuel provided greater bursts of speed, more power, quicker takeoff, longer range, and greater maneuverability. The US was producing 514,000 barrels per day of 100 octane fuel by 1945, compared to 40,000 barrels per day in 1940.

Picture of hundreds 5-gallon cans sitting in front of military trucks
Red Ball Express - Jerricans depot - 1944.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons