** war and social upheaval: World War II -- nationl industrial trends

World War II: National Industrial Trends

Nazi industry
Figure 1.--Here we see a suburban American street crammed with cars about 1925-30. Comparable German snapshots of town streets, even in the central cities, commonly did not have as many cars. This difference in the automobile industry as well as other industrial sectors would have major consequences in the War. The simple fact not fully realized by the Germans is that factories and companies that produced cars and washing machines could also produce tanks and other military equipment.

President Roosevelt as America faced the daunting challenge of industrial mobilization called on prominent New Deal critics to organize the greatest industrial mobilization in history. This included General Motors (Bill Knudsen) for mass production. Sears Roebuck (Robert Wood) for logistics. U.S. Steel (Edward R. Stettinius Jr.) for raw materials. These were men who knew nothing about the military. Hitler who had booming war factories in full production turning out state of the art weaponry to all ready conquering armies must have been laughing his socks off in 1940. He would not be laughing long.*

-- Documentary "The Raw Industrial Power of World War II America--War Factories" Timeline

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain (mid-18th century) and after the Napoleonic Wars gradually spread to the Continent, especially France and Germany. And by the turn-of the 20th century was beginning to transform other countries such as Russia. Industrialization and the advance of science which accompanied it transformed warfare. The major industrial powers became the most important Military powers. Russia and Austria declined as great powers while Prussia was able to unite Germany around it and emerged as the dominant power in continental Europe. And the highly militarized Prussian state became a dominant force in the German Empire. Industry also developed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland but were too small to develop important military forces. Partially because of this they sought refuge in neutrality, despite the Belgian experience in World War I. America emerged as a great industrial power, but lagged behind Europe in Scientific expertise although the science establishment was growing. America except for the Civil War and World war I declined to devote important resources to the military. America after the turn-of-the 20th century thanks to Henry Ford developed the industrial assembly line which transformed the country into the preeminent world industrial power. Industries in Europe such as automobile companies continued to be more craft shops. Producing often high-quality products, but on a smaller scale and at higher prices. The automobile industry was particularly important in a mechanized war of movement. The Soviet Union emerged in Russia and continued the country's industrialization which had begun during the Tsarist period and devoted great resources to the military. Stalin speed up the development of heavy industry by starving the countryside. There was also important industrial development in northern Italy and Czechoslovakia which emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Japan emerged as the only industrial power in Asia. While Japan modernized economically, it had a relatively small scientific establishment. In contrast to the economic advances, the country retained a very traditional political outlook with military built around a medieval code of honor and conduct--Bushido. These industrial and scientific developments played an important role in World War I and would play an even more important role in World War II.


At the time Hitler launched World War II, there was only one country in the world that had the potential to wage modern war on multiple fronts and a world-wide basis. That was the United States. America would prove to have the capacity not only to fully equip its own forces, but those of its allies as well. The question became when would a country determined to stay out of another European war, recognize the growing danger and begin to prepare for it. The United States had the capacity to build modern weapons, but did not do so. It had no conscription law and its small army was not equipped with modern weapons. World War II would prove to be a mechanize war. And only the United States had the ability to build the implements of modern war. Unlike the Europeans, the United States Army did not have a modern tank. The Congress has severely limited military spending, cutting expenditures to the bone. U.S. industry had the technical and industrial capacity to build tanks, other mechanized vehicles, artillery, and other weapons. This has come from the enormous American industrial expansion during the late-19th and early-20th century. The result was a mechanized America, including American agriculture. In contrast, European agricultural was not mechanized. This affected the industrial capacity of European countries, including Germany. A key element of American industrial development was taken by Henry Ford who introduced the assembly line and mass production. The result was the Model-T Ford which put an automobile within the price range of the average American worker and astronomical production runs. It also significantly increased steel production in America--the single most important metal needed to conduct war. European workers at the time for the most part were buying bicycles. European automobile companies were more like craft shops, producing high-quality automobiles for well-to-do customers. This meant that America had the capacity to build mechanized vehicles in huge numbers and a time when the vaunted German Wehrmacht went to war still heavily dependent on draft animals. And it was not just capacity, but technological advances and manufacturing techniques made America such a powerful potential adversary. As a result, American automobile companies played a major role in the economies of most the World War II combatant countries (England, France, and the Soviet Union). And here we are not just talking about cars, but trucks and farm vehicle as well--including tracked vehicles. It would be an American inventor that created the suspension system used by the Soviet T-34 tank. He tried to sell it to the U.S. Army rejected it. It was well known that America had a huge industrial capacity. Churchill from the the fall of France realized that America with its immense resources and industrial capacity was Britain's only salvation. Hitler was vaguely aware of the danger and avoided taking on America until the Red Amy was destroyed. Japan was less aware and committed the central error of the Axis--bringing America with its massive industrial potential into the War.


Britain was the first country to industrialize as part of the Industrial Revolution. It was for a time the preeminent industrial power with an empire that spanned the world. Britain's industrial dominance was challenged in he late-19th century by America and Germany and to a lesser extent France. American industry began to under cut British manufacturing with innovative methods. The British continued using existing plants and methods. They also faced competition from the Germans where the Government supported industrial expansion, especially in areas of military importance like steel manufacturing. World War I shattered the foundation of British finance. The country was bankrupted by the War. The human cost was also enormous. Some 7 million metric tons of shipping was lost. Industry no matter how inefficient did well during the War. This changed after the War as a bankrupt Britain had to face highly efficient American competition. The Government sharply cut back on military orders. Factories had to retool for consumer industries. Britain lost important foreign markets as other countries also bankrupted by the War could not afford to import. One of the most important was Germany. Another was Russia and the new Soviet Government which also not could not afford to import as well as new policies which essentially withdrew the country from world trade. The Labor Party, came to power under James Ramsay MacDonald, supported by socialist groups and trade unions and put new pressure on industry (1924). And both the United States and Japan had won important export markets. British industry suffered a serious decline even before the Great Depression (1929). Britain and France combined had a greater industrial capacity than Germany, but the public demanded social welfare rather than military spending. British automobile production exceeded 237,000 units for the first time in 1930, but was still only about 10 percent of American production. Relatively low incomes compared to America, public transport, demographics, and a general preference on on engineering quality had combined to limit the market for automobiles in Europe. Britain emerged as the continental leader in par bcause average incomes were the largest in Europe. Morris Motors became the first British manufacturer to begin mass production, adopting the moving assembly line for production (1934). Limited production runs as well as a traditional disdain for such methods had presented the adoption of American methods. The assembly line required considerable investment in plant and equipment and thus substantial production runs were required. The image of the automobile as a high-end luxury helped maintain the tradition of small-scale, craft technologies throughout Europe. Military spending for several crucial years while Germany engaged in a massive rearmament program was limited. Britain used only a fraction of its still very formidable industrial establishment for military production and thus fell behind the Germans in several crucial areas. Britain did not have the raw industrial might of America, but it had a major advantage over both America and Germany. The World War I experience had taught the British the potential of women as industrial factory workers.


Canada unlike the other Dominions had a substantial industrial base. The Canadian contribution began early and made a crucial difference to the winning of the war. For a nation of 11 million people it was an incredible accomplishment, one out of all proportion to its population. The plans to launch another War were laid in Hitler's mind without any careful study. In his amateurish assessment, he failed to appreciate the importance of the Dominions. Canadian industry would make a substantial contribution to the Allied war-effort. The Canadian government after declaring war on Germany (September 1939) took full control of the economy. It rapidly turned it into a vital part of the Allied war effort. And Canadian war plants were safe from Axis bombing. Canada became like America an arsenal of democracy. The country proved to be Britain's chief overseas supplier of war materiel. America was also a major supplier to Britain, but unlike America which had a much larger military to supply, Canada shipped most of its production to Britain. The Canadian Federal government set up the Department of Munitions and Supply--DOMAS (April 1940). DOMAS to coordinated the production of munitions for the Canadian armed forces and those of its allies. The Government appointed Clarence Decatur Howe (1886-1960) to head DOMAS. Through DOMAS, Canadian industry not only equipped Canada's own armed forces but other Allied forces, primarily Britain. DOMAS allocated the available raw materials to war plants and helped created new industries to manufacture needed arms. Canada did not accept American Lend Lease aid, the only Allied nation not to do so. Canada created its own Lend Lease program for its Allies which it called Mutual Aid. The single most important area of production was escort craft for the Royal Canadian Navy. Thanks to a prodigious industrial effort, Canada went from a country without a navy to one of the world's major navies in numbers of ships. The Royal Canadian Navy thus played a key role in one of the most important battles of the War--the Battle of the Atlantic. The Canadian contribution, however, did not stop here. Many other arms and munitions were manufactured in Canada. Canada was a small, but highly industrialized country. It in particular had a substantial automobile industry which like the American automobile industry could be converted for war production. This had not been the case in World War I, but there was considerable industrial development in the inter-War era. The Canadians supplied its allies C$4 billion dollars worth of war materiel, a much larger figure if calculated in today's dollars. About 70 percent of Canadian production went tom its allies. A further credit of C$1 billion dollars was given to Britain. Canadian industries manufactured war materials with a total value of almost $10 billion - approximately $100 billion in today's dollars. Canada's war production was fourth among the Allied nations, only exceeded by that of the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The Canadians did not develop weapons, but Canadian factories produced weapons developed in Britain and to a lesser extent the United States.


Czechoslovakia was a small country, but one with a substantial industrial base. During World War I, Bohemia had the most important industrial complex supporting the Austro-Hungarian military. Especially important was the Skoda Arms Complex. The Allied decision to turn the Sudetenland over to Hitler at Munich left the country essentially defenseless (September 1938). Hitler seized the rest of the country 6 months later without firing a shot (March 1939). As a result, Hitler added the substantial, modern Czech arms industry to the German war economy. This substantially increased the German industrial capacity. The Skoda Arms Works would be a major supplier of tanks and artillery to the Wehrmacht throughout the War.


France had one of the largest economies in Europe, after Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. France France of all of the four major countries had the smallest industrial plant, but it also had a very substantial agricultural sector. Unlike Britain and Germany, France could largely feed its population and was not dependent on large-scale food imports. France had an important automobile industry. At the end of World War I it was the second largest world manufacturer, however, far behind the United States. World production was 2.4 million cars and America produced 2.3 million of that total. Of the 0.1 million cars produced, France produced about half or 40,000 units. The French motor industry was the largest and most modern in Europe. One author describes it as highly 'innovative'. Like other European automobile industry, they had not mastered mass production like the Americans. This was because French workers and farmer could not afford to buy cars and trucks. The automobile was a luxury item for the well-to-do. The automobile industry was particularly important because not only did it helped to enlarge other basic industries such as steel and rubber, but in time of war it could be converted into military production, including trucks, armored vehicles, aircraft and other war material. Car production grew in France, but the French industry gradually lost its lead. The United States would never again so completely dominate the world automobile industry, although even by 1930 about 60 percent of cars were built in America. France which had been the European leader was replaced by Britain which produced 237,000 units. France produced only 230,000 units. European manufacturers were still not using American methods. Unlike other countries (Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union), American manufacturers did not have a French subsidiary or joint venture. The German invasion and occupation put most of French industry, largely undamaged in the fighting, at the disposal of the Germans. And the Vichy policy was collaboration. The Germans seem more intent on plans to dismantle French industry than incorporating it into the German war economy. The Germans did import large quantities of consumer goods, paid for by reparations and over-valued Reich Mark. The enormous potential for war production was not tapped to any serious degree. [Speer] Albert Speer after his appointment as Armaments Minister sought to increase the use of French industrial capacity. Speer sought to use French plants for arms production, guaranteeing the workers from conscription for compulsory war work in the Reich. This led to a major confrontation with Franz Saukel, General Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment.


Germany even after World War I had the largest industrial establishment in Europe. It was that industry that was the backbone of the Central Powers war effort. The War had not been fought on German territory and except for the Saarland and Rhineland, Germany was not occupied by the Allies. Germany did loose some territory as a result of the Versailles Peace Treaty, but the country's industrial complex was left largely intact. The country's scientific establishment supporting that industry was also intact. The strength of that establishment can be seen by the number of Noble Prizes German scientists were awarded, One loss to German's industrial capacity was the solution's of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This meant that the Skoda arms complex was now in Czechoslovakia, a new independent democratic country, oriented toward Britain and France. While Germany remained the most important industrial country in Europe, one area that Germany did not pursue intensively was the automobile industry. Germany of course had some notable automobile manufacturers (Mercedes and Porch), they did not mass produce cars like American automobile companies (Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Stutabaker, and others). The average German worker could not afford cars, especially the expensive cars made by German manufactures. There were also weaknesses in the German industrial economy, the need to import raw materials. The most notable being petroleum. Nor did Germany have anywhere near the capability to build aircraft that its potential opponents have. Imperial Germany in World War I did not have the same industrial capability of the Allies--even before America entered the War. The industrial alliance of power was even less favorable for NAZI Germany as Hitler contemplated another war. The Germany that the NAZIs seized control of was by any objective assessment not a country capable of waging another world war. Only a leader pathologically committed to war would have contemplated such a decision. Germany would go to war with essentially the same industrial and scientific complex of Imperial Germany (the NAZIs did little to expand either). Yet the countries they would wage war against had greatly expanded their industrial and scientific complexes. The relative industrial balance between Germany and the Allies (Britain and France) did not change appreciably in the inter-War era. What did change was the industrial capacity of the two European outriders--the Soviet Union and the United States. Tsarist Russia in World War I did not have the industrial capacity to properly equip its soldiers. The Soviet Union did. American had greatly expanded its industrial capacity. And one area that grew out of all proportion to Germany was the automobile industry--particularly important in a modern mechanized war.


Italy was Germany's Axis partner. In terms of population, Italy was a major European country. In economic terms it was an industrial light weight. Much of the country was agricultural and southern Italy was almost feudal with agricultural methods little changed from the Middle Ages. The low yields was part of the reason that although an agricultural country, Italy had to import food, especially grains. The large population and backward agriculture was one reason Italy pushed for African colonies. The demographics of the country we more like a developing country. Several European countries had a more modern economy than Italy, including Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland. Italy did have an industrial base in the north, but it was not large enough to support modern war with major military powers. Under-Secretary for War Production, Carlo Favagrossa, calculated that Italy could not be prepared for major military operations until at least October 1942. It is difficult to see how this date was reached as Italian industry even if fully mobilized did not have capacity to manufacture the implements of war insufficient quality or quantity. And Hitler's preliminary projections were to launch the war in the early-1940s. The Italo-German negotiations which led to the Pact of Steel May 1939) clearly stated that neither signatory was to make war without the other earlier than 1943. [Walker. p. 19.] The timidity of Hitler's adversaries caused him to accelerate his war plans. Italy's industrial sector was small compared to Britain and France and minuscule compared to the United States. The automobile industry was key to World War II. The automobile industry that was needed to manufacture the motrized vehicles needed for mobile war. One estimate suggests that Italy's automobile industry was only abut 15 percent the size of that of Britain and France. There were about 0.4 million cars in Italy, compared to some 2.5 million in Britain and France. Not only did Italy have a relatively small industrial sector, but it did not have one which could be converted to supply the Italian Army the number of vehicles needed to mechanize or heavy tanks equal to those of the British and Americans. And if the size of Italian industry suggested the country was not ready for war, worse still ws the fact that most raw materials had to be imported. Much of this was dome by sea transport, exposing Italy to a Royal Navy blockade. Mussolini's decision to join Hitler in the War ws not an informed one based on Italy's industrial capacity, but on frustration that he was missing out on the booty of conquest. Finally with France already about to fall, Mussolini led an entirely unprepared country to War (June 1940).


Japan w the first Asian country to begin to industrialize. Even so industrail production wa a small fraction of that of the United States. They only began to produce automobiles (1930). Production totaled a mere 500 units. Japanese industry even before the carrier strike on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor was on a war footing. When the resulting War pioved not to be a short one as the Japanese military expected, the country set about mobilizing its industrial capacity for total war. The bulk of the Japanese Army was deployed in China, but the vast expansion of the Japanese Empire required more men to garrison. And as the Allies recovered from the initial Japanese offensives, more men were needed to fight the increasingly powerful Allied thrusts in Southeast Asia and the Pacific and thus workers and middle-aged men were drafted. Women and children were ordered to work in factories as well as on farms. As the military made increasing demands on manpower, school children were drafted to replace men drafted into military service on far-flung battlefields. Factories were put on a 7-day work day (summer 1944). Trains were increasingly crowded, largely because because fuel was becoming increasingly scarce. Japan had gone to War to obtain petroleum and other resources, but by 1943, the American submarine campaign was methodically destroying the Japanese maru (merchant) fleet. Japan was left with the oil fields in Southeast Asia, but no way to get it back to the Home Islands. Petroleum was the biggest problem, but shortages of other raw materials also developed, including rubber, nickel, tin, and others were increasingly difficult to obtain. The same was true of other critical raw materials. Japanese industry, however, proved totally incapable of matching America production in quantity or quality. A good example was the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. It was an extraordinarily effective aircraft against Allied aircraft (1941-42). The Americans rapidly introduced new advanced aircraft types. The Japanese were still using the Zero, albeit with some modifications) at the end of the War. Even running their factories 7 days a week, the Japanese could not begin to match the output of the United States which was rapidly expanding. Even before the strategic bombing campaign, Japan's industry was producing only a small fraction of American output and was severely impacted by raw material shortages.

Soviet Union

Stalin had built an industrial base, focusing on heavy industry, capable of producing war material on an immense level. The Germans were not aware of the full Soviet potential, neither the quantity or the quality of Soviet production. Soviet industrial production played a major role in the War. Many factories were located beyond the Urals out of reach of the Germans and continued operating even as Barbarossa was unfolding. The Soviets managed to pack up and move whole factories east, where they could not be reached by the Luftwaffe's tactical bombers. Production at these factories was often inunitiated in the open air before buildings were erected. Some of these plants were brought to areas of the Soviet Union tat had not been heavily industrialized. A reader in Tajikistan writes, "Some of these plants were set up in Tajikistan during 1941-42. Many displaced citizens were evacuated to Dushanbe as well. They arrived by train. This substantially increased the ethnic Russian population in Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics." Production at many of these factories, however, were not back to full production until 1943. Even so the output of these Soviet factories alone exceeded German production. This was not know at the time outside Moscow and not appreciated by Hitler and OKW. Thus when British and American production were added, it is clear to what extent Barbarossa had changed the strategic balance between the Allies and Axis. And it was not just in quantitative terms. Soviet war production was rationalized. Production of obsolete weapons terminated and that of more effective weapons like the T-34 tank expanded. Soviet artillery was of a high standard. While the Red Air Force was devastated at the onset of Barbarossa because of obsolete planes, new planes like the Yak fighters (Yak 1, 7, and 9s) and the IL-2 Stormovek were high quality planes that in capable hands could and did take on the Luftwaffe. These planes were also produced in enormous numbers. More than 37,000 Yaks were produced by the Russians, more than any other fighter in the War. As the Allied air assault on Germany intensified in 1943 and the Luftwaffe had too pull back to defend German cities, the Germans also began losing their advantage in the air that they had during Barbarossa.


Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich

Walker, Ian W. Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts; Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa . (Ramsbury: The Crowood Press, 2003).


* For these introductory passages, CIH likes to use actual quotations. The idea for this passage came from the Timeline documentary "The Raw Industrial Power of World War II America--War Factories," however we have added some additional information. The bit about Hitler's socks is largely a quote from Guy Walters, British historian and journalist. The Timeline series on the War Factories is one of the better done World War II documentary series.


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Created: 5:09 AM 2/18/2013
Last updated: 10:58 PM 7/6/2024