World War II Economics: Raw Materials

rubber resources in World War II
Figure 1.--At the time of World War II, the great bulk of the world's rubber came from plantations in Malaya, Borneo, and Indonesia. The rapid German seizure of the area after the Pearl Harbor attack (December 1941) endangered the Allied war effort. The United States launched a massive effort to produce rubber in other tropical areas of Africa and South America and a crash program to produce synthetic rubber.

Strategic materials played a critical role in World War II, in both the desire to launch the War and in the ability to wage an extended conflict. Only one country at the outbreak of World War II had the industrial and agricultural capacity as well as the resource base to wage world war and that was the United States which had no desire to wage another world war. The Soviet Union had significantly expanded the Russian industrial base, but weakened the country's agricultural base through enducung the Ukranian famine and collectivzing agriculture. Like the United States, the Soviets posessed enormous natural resources and like Germany, they has desisns on neigboring countries. Britain was less well situated. It had a substantial industrial and scientific base, but except for coal and iron, limited domestic resources. And it had to import large quantities of food. Those resources, however, existed in the Empire and overseas trading partners like America. The Royal Navy existed to ensure access to those resources in time of War, but had been allowed to decline in strength during the inter-War period. France was better situated in terms of Britain as to food production and as a result of its navy and alliance with Britain was guaranteed access to needed raw materials in its colonies and trading partners. The Axis powers were less favorably positioned for War in ters of raw materials. Germany was an important industrial and scientific power, but could neither feed itself nor possessed the strategic resources needed for industrial world war. The one critical resource Germany possessed in abundance was coal. Other important strategic materials would have to be imported. This made Germany vulnerable to blockade and as in World War I, Germany did not have the naval power to contest a Royal Navy blockade. Germany was particularly defecient in access to petroleum, a necesity for the modern mechnized war in planned to wage. Germany's answer to this was a sunthetic petroleum industry, but this did not even meet the country's need in peace time. The limited resource base was why Hitler in his strategic thinking from a very early stage looked east to the copious resources of the Soviet Union--resources that were not subject to a Royal Navy blockade. Italy was the least prepared country of all the major beligerants. Italy had neither the industrial base nor the raw materials to wage a protracted war. Japan was the most industrialized country in Asia, but its industrial base was small in comparison to America. The Home Islands had almost no natural resources, but Japan had acquired some in Korea and Manchuria. Like Germany, Japan had virtually no petroleum and imported most of its needs from the United States, making it even more vulnerable than Germany.

Food

Food is not an obvious military weapon, but no coutry can wage war without food. Food shortages had severely hampered the Central Powers in World War I. The German World War I effort had been seriously compromosed virtually at the onset because of its food policies in Belgium, helping to back the Allied narative of a brutal rapacious aggressort nation. And ovr the long run, food shortages at home undermined national morale. Seizing the agricultural land of the East was a primary German goal. The desire to increase control over food producing areas was a key consideration of all three major Axis powes. Food resources were not just important, but asolutely vital. None were self sufficent in food production nor had the capability of increasing food production. The desire to increase control over food producing areas was a key consideration of all three major Axis powers. Control of the seas gave the Gritish the ability to import needed resources which was readily available in America and Canada. The U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic attempted to cut the supply of these raw materials to Britain. The American submarine campaign in the Pacific suceeded in cutting the Japanese Home Islands off from their Southern Resource Area. The Germans used food as a deadly weapon, adopting the Hunger Plan and killing millions of innocent civilians. The Japanese also killed millions because of their food policy, but this was more a matter of rapaciouness and incomprtence thn an actuial hunger plan. Britain depended on the Dominions and America for food. The Soviet war effort could have been crippled because the Germans seized so much agricultural land. America through Lend Lease helped feed the Red Army. American ageiculure which substantially increased production was a vitl part of the Allied war effor. While the German Operation Barbarossa failed to destroy the Red Army, it did give them control of the richest Black Soil area of the Siviet Union.and compromised the Soviets ability to feed thir people and the Red Army. The Japanese also killed millions because of their food policy, but this was more a matter of rapaciouness and incomprtence than an actual hunger plan. Britain depended on the Dominions and America for food. The Soviet war effort could have been crippled because the Germans seized so much agricultural land. America as in World War I significantly expanded agricultural production for its own war effort as well as through Lend Lease helped feed its allies, including the Soviet Red Army. American agriculure which substantiall\y increased production was a vital part of the Allied war effort.

Raw Materials

Strategic materials played a critical role in World War II, in both the desire to launch the War and in the ability to wage an extended conflict. World War II was an industrial war dominated by modern new weapons produced by industry. And to produce those weapons, raw materials were needed. Several materials were especialy important. The key resource was oil. Modern mechanized war is simply impossible without oil. It was need for land war, naval war, and the air war. The Allies, especially the United Sates, had huge petroleum rescource. The Germans were gained control of the Romanian Ploesti oil fields. They also had a synthetic fuel industry. At the beginning of the War, the Soviets supplied large quantities of oil and other critical resources to Germany, After the German invasion, oil became an increasingly severe problem for the Germans. Other key resources included chrome, copper, iron, nickle, rubber, and other materials. This list is very similar to that of World War I, although oil and rubber were much more important. A new metal became verey important--aluminium. An unfamiliar new material was added to the list--uranium. Food resources were also important. Food shortages had severely hampered the Central Powers in World War I. The desire to increase control over food producing areas was a key consideration of all three major Axis powes. Control of the seas gave the Allies the ability to import needed resources. Many were available in the United States and Canada. The U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic attempted to cut the supply of these raw matweials to Britain. The American submarine campaign in the Pacific suceeded in cutting the Japanese Home Islands off from their Southern Resource Area. Rubber became a problem for the Allies after the Japanese seized Malaya and Borneo where much of the world's rubbef was produced. The United States launched a crash program to produce synthetic rubber. Almost all of the rubber used by Germany was synthetic.

Country Situations

The Allies at the start of World War II controlled the overwealming portion of the world's raw materials, especially the most critical ones like petroleum and rubber. They also controlled enormous areas of productive agricultural land. Not only did they control significant sources of raw material, but they had the naval power to obtain raw materials from countries they did not control and deny those resources to the Axis countries. Here the Axis powers were in a very poor situation. This put them at a disadvantage in waging any extended war. But it also created an incentive to launch a war to seize those resources. Britain and France because of their empires also had vast resources. The Soviet Union also had vast resources of oil and minerals as well as significant agricultural potential. As a consequence of conquest, the Axis powers attrmpted to increased their access to needed raw materials. The Germans improved their situation, but actually reduced their access to oil and many other minerals the Soviets had been delivering to them. If the Germans would have completed ther conquest of the Soviet Union they would have had the resources they needed. The Japananese did much better. They seized control of the resources they needed in ther Southern Resource area. The Allies had not realised the extent of Japanese naval power. Nor did the Japanese fully appreciate the American reaction and the rapidity with which American industry could redress the naval balance. While the Japanese seized control of the resources they needed. They would find getting those resources back to the factories on the Home Islands a much more difficult proposition.

America

America was not militarily prepared when Hitler and Stalin launched World War II in Europe. The U.S. Army was a very small force, smaller than the armies of even some of the smaller European countries. Even so, only one country at the outbreak of World War II had the industrial and agricultural capacity as well as the raw material resource base to wage world war on an extended basis. And as would prove to be the case, wage world war on a global basis on two widely separated distant fronts. The United States, unlike the Axis nations and the Soviet Union, howeever, had no desire to wage another world war. The Soviet Union had substantial deposits of natural resources and had significantly expanded the country's industrial base, but significantly weakened the country's agricultural base by cusing the Ukranian famine as aay to destroy the Ukranian peasantry and collectizing agriculture. The United States' peace time economy was self sufficent or largely self sufficent it just about all categories of raw material production. And unlike the industry and mines of the other major World War II belgerants, America was beyond the reach of its enemies. They could not be bombed while the industry and mines as well as the transport net work of the Axis could be bombed and interdicted. And unlike the Soviet policy of murdering the peasantry, the New Deal before the War had focused on saving and revitalizing the American farmer. As a result, agricultural production could be significntly increased. As industril war production ramped up, however, America would need to import raw materials in vast quantities. The one major weakness was rubber, although uranium would also prove to be a problem. What America lacked, it had the ability to import as long as it could keep the sea lanes threatened by Germn U-boats open. The immediate problem for America once the Lend Lease commitment was made was to get raw materials and equipment to Britain and its other allies like the Soviet Union. The rubber problem was solved by launching a new synthetic rubber industry. The delivery problemn was solved by a massuive naval expansion program and the venerable Liberty Ships. Not only did the United States have the resource base to supply its own war industry, bit it also was able to supply or help supply its allies as well.

Britain

Britain was less well situated. It had a substantial industrial and scientific base, but except for coal and iron, limited domestic resources. And it had to import large quantities of food. Those resources, however, existed in the Empire and overseas trading partners like America. The Royal Navy existed to ensure access to those resources in time of War, but had been allowed to decline in strength during the inter-War period. France was better situated in terms of Britain as to food production and as a result of its navy and alliance with Britain was guaranteed access to needed raw materials in its colonies and trading partners. The Axis powers were less favorably positioned for War in ters of raw materials.

France

France was defeated and occupied by the Germans in the firsrt year of the War (May-June 1940). This gave the Germans access to French resources, but not the resources of the French Empire which were left under Vichy control. France had some mineral resources, but like Germny no oil fields. What France did have in the way of natural resources was a highly productive agricultural sector. French agriculture had sustained the country during World war I when German civilisns experiemnces severe food shortages. Germahny as part of its occupation exploited French agriculture. Large quantities of food were shippedd to the Reich and severe rationing forced upon the French. Ironically, Hitler had sdeen the East and ine invasion of the Soviet Union as the answer to Germany's food needs. The opposite proved to be the case. While large quantities of food wee obtained in France and the other occupied countries in the West, substantial grain deliveries from the Soviet Unuin ebnded with Barbarossa (June 1941). The food obtained by the Germans in the East, was barely sufficent to feed the Whermacht waging the campaign. Very little food from the East reaching civilians in the Reich in contrast to the large deliveriers from France.

Germany

Germany was an important industrial and scientific power, but could neither feed itself nor possessed the strategic resources needed for industrial world war. The one critical resource Germany possessed in abundance was coal. Other important strategic materials would have to be imported. This made Germany vulnerable to blockade and as in World War I, Germany did not have the naval power to contest a Royal Navy blockade. Germany was particularly defecient in access to petroleum, a necesity for the modern mechnized war in planned to wage. Germany's answer to this was a sunthetic petroleum industry, but this did not even meet the country's need in peace time. Another serious deficency was rubber which was also filled through synthetic production. Germany also needed to import irone ore for steel production. This could, however, could be done through the Baltic and Norwegian coastal waters, the only sea areas Germany controlled during the War. The limited resource base was why Hitler in his strategic thinking from a very early stage looked east to the copious resources of the Soviet Union--resources that were not subject to a Royal Navy blockade. But going to war with such a limited resource base meant that war ws a gamble. Unless Germany won the war in a series of short, quick campaigns, it was doomed to failure. Failure to defeat the British (1940) and the filure to defeat the Sovet Union mean that the Hitler amnd Germany had lost their ganble and lost big. After the Whermacht was sti\pped before Moscow they would face enemy armies with vastly supperior resources, a material superiority that woukd increase every year of the remaining years of the War. The Allies were aware of Germany's limited petroleum resources, but it would taken some time for the strategic bombing campaign tyo hone in Germany's sources of petroleum.

Italy

Italy was the least prepared aggressor country of all the major beligerants. Italy had neither the industrial base nor the raw materials to wage a protracted war. Benito Mussolini was intent on creating a New Roman Empire in the Mediterranean, in part to gain access to needed raw materials. But this meant war. Invading Ethiopia and Albania was one thing, fighting a modern war with Britain and America was a very different matter. Italy at the onset of the War was almost totally dependent on importing strategic mnaterils (1940). The Italians produced only 4.4 metric tons (MT) of coal, negiligbe quantities of oil, 1.2 MT of iron ore, and 2.1 MT of steel. Of particular importance was oil. Like Germany, Italy had no substantial petroleum resources, but unlike Germany, Italy was not a heavily industrialized nation able to produce modern weaponry in quantitity. Here the Italian problem was not just raw material shortages, but the industrial base as well. And unlike Germany, Italy's success in the War would depend on the outcome of an inevitable naval campaign in the Mediterranean. Not only was control of the Mediterranean neededto import raw materials, but as a peninsular country, Italy was highly vulnerable to naval attack. And much of the imports were came by sea. The decisuion for war was an impulsive one on Mussolini's part. Thus the various ministries had not chance to prepare. Unlike Germany, there was no effort made stockpile key materials before declaring war. And further compounding the Italian woes, something like a quarter of Italy's merchant fleet were in foreign ports when the country declared war. They were immediately impounded and thus most were lost to the war effort. .

Japan

Japan was the most industrialized country in Asia, but its industrial base was small in comparison to America. And the Home Islands had almost no natural resources. Japan had acquired some in resources in Foromsa (Taiwan), Korea, and Manchuria as it began to build an empire. But of all the Axis countries, Japan ws the most dependent on imported resources to support its wr industries. It also was dependent on imported food. Like Germany, Japan had virtually no petroleum, but unlike Germahny, ma\de no effort to found an inportant synthtic fuel industry. And of ll places, Japan imported most of its needs from the United States--especially oil. And Americ was not only the principal country opposing Jaopanese imperial ambitions in China, but the one country agfter Hitler launched World War II with the military capability to resist Japanese military adventures. This made the Japanese war economy especially vulnerable, much more vulnerable than Germany. Of all the World War II combatants, Japan was in the worst position to wage a protracted war. The Home Islands have few natural resources and virtually no oil. Part of the reason for invading China was to obtain raw materials, but even in China there was little petroleum. The lure of the raw materials in the Southern Resource Zone was the greate lure that drove Japan to war. Japan managed to seize the SRZ, but unlike Germany which could use relatively secure rail transport to pillage its empire, the Japanese woukd have to use its inadequate and vulnerable merchant marine (Marus) to get the resources of the SRZback to the Homne Islands.

Soviet Union

The Soviets like the United States posessed enormous natural resources, but umlike the United States, they had designs on neigboring countries. As a result, Stalin agreeded to the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact, joining Hitler in launching the War. For the Soviets, the problem was not natural resources. The only major resource they lacked was rubber. And asfter the German invasion (June 1941), it would be supplied by the United states through Lend Lease. A major problem became food because much of the Ukraine was occupied by the Germans (1941-43). Here American Lend Lease became an important source. One of the few English worlds almost all Russsians learned during the warr was of all thihs--Spam. The Germans seized important mines, but often were not able to bring them to full production. And the Soviet Union was so lsrge and its natural resources so extensive that German advances did not criple the war economy. A factor here was wshile the Germans did seize the Ukraine, much of the German conquests in the north were in rtghe Baltics or eastern Poland. The great bulk of the Russian heartland after the Red Army offensive before Moscow (December 1941) remained in Soviet hands.







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Created: 2:16 AM 10/18/2008
Last updated: 4:55 AM 6/8/2014