How Important Was Oil in World War II?

History Q & A

Keith Miller has been a speaker with the OAH Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

Let me begin with a short story. The great tank commander--George S. Patton--found out the hard way how important oil was (in the form of gasoline) to the war effort. His tanks were moving so fast as they approached the Seigfried Line of Germany, they all ran out of gasoline. To get more fuel to the fiery general, as quickly as possible, it had to be airlifted from Normandy.

But, many more stories of a similar kind could be told. The truth is--oil was the indispensable product, in all its forms, to the Allied campaigns around the world. Without it World War Two could never have been won. For oil, once processed or refined in various ways, became the source or indispensable material for laying runways, making toluene (the chief component of TNT) for bombs, the manufacturing of synthetic rubber for tires, and the distilling into gasoline (particularly at 100-octane levels) for use in trucks, tanks, jeeps, and airplanes. And, that is not to mention the need for oil as a lubricant for guns and machinery.

To provide all the oil, or at least most of it, for the Allied war effort, the United States enlisted the aid of American oil companies, all of which responded without hesitation to the challenge. Meeting what eveyone in government knew would amount to a demand for oil in unprecedented quantities required much organization. On 28 May 1941, even then before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established by a letter what became known officially as the Petroleum Administration for War (PAW), on 2 December 1942. To head that agency Roosevelt appointed the very capable Harold L. Ickes, who had been Secretary of the Interior. Ickes, soon after his appointment, selected 72 leaders of America's oil industry for the Petroleum Industry Council for National Defense, which later became known as the Petroleum Industry War Council (PIWC). Interestingly enough, the PIWC held its first meeting,"'one of the great coincidences of history,'" (as Ickes referred to the matter in his fine book Fightin' Oil), the day after Pearl Harbor.

Ickes' right-hand man from the oil business became Ralph K. Davies, vice-president of Standard Oil of California, whom Ickes designated Deputy Petroleum Coordinator. This appointment by Ickes, along with a meeting of 1,500 influential oilmen, dispelled any doubts about the willingness of Ickes (who had, before the war, made some harsh judgments regarding America's oil industry) to cooperate fully with oil industry leaders and their companies, great and small. In fact, Ickes and Davies, along with the whole of the American oil business, forged an amicable working relationship that endured throughout World War Two.

Space will not permit an exhaustive treatment of the ways and means by which the national government and the oil industry met war-time needs involing petroleum, but it is possible to focus on the following: the production of toluene; the output of synthetic rubber; the refining of crude into huge quantities of gasoline, including that of 100-octane grade; and the laying of the Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines.

For years toluene had come as by-product of coke-oven operations, but in 1933 the Standard Oil Development Company announced a laboratory method for producing it from oil. By the time of World War Two the process had been perfected. During the war Humble Oil & Refining Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey, through the operation of the Baytown Ordnance Works, which was government-owned, produced almost half of the U. S. supply of toluene. Much of the rest came from the efforts of Shell Oil. To be specific--from 1940 through 1945 the total production of toluene by American oil companies equaled 484,282,000 gallons, with 239,282,000 from the Baytown Ordnance Works (49.4 percent of the total) and 72,735,000 gallons from Shell (15.0 percent).

Also, of vital importance to the Allied prosecution of World War Two was the making of synthetic rubber. That had to be achieved, because the Japanese, in occupying the Netherlands East Indies, controlled 90 percent of the world's natural supplies of rubber. To produce synthetic rubber required the making of butadiene, its basic raw material. Standard Oil Company of Louisiana and Humble Oil & Refining Company, both subsidiaries of Standard Oil Of New Jersey, built plants at Baton Rouge and Baytown respectively. Other companies produced butadiene during the war, but none were more important than the two companies referred to here, which together provived 29.1 percent of the total U. S. yield of butadiene from 1943 through 1945. It must be emphasized, that so effective were the efforts of American oil companies at manufacturing synthetic rubber, at no time did Allied campaigns suffer from a shortage of rubber.

Along with the marvelous achievements of American oil companies at producing toluene and synthetic rubber, one must add the prodigious yields of gasoline, including 100-octane grade. When it is realized to what extent World War Two was motorized in nature, not to mention the primacy of air power, one can hardly exaggerate the importance of such fuel output. As suggested above, that production by American oil companies exceeded even U. S. government expectations. For instance, the Jersey group of companies, with just the Baytown and Baton Rouge plants being considered, combined to deliver 2 billion gallons of 100-octane fuel (the grade needed for airplanes) by 1 June 1945.

Before my summation, it remains to recount the history of the Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines. Both lines originated in Texas and extended to the East Coast. The former carried oil, as yet unrefined, and the latter petroleum products. Construction of the Big Inch began 3 August 1942 and was completed on 14 August 1943. Until that pipeline was completed east of Norris City, Illinois, however, that small town in the prairie state served as terminus for the line--tank cars were filled there for shipment to the East Coast.

One oilman should be singled out so far as the laying of the Big Inch is concerned. That man was Burt E. Hull of the Texas Company (Texaco). He was what one might call the"dean of the pipeliners" in the U. S. Under his direction the Big Inch was completed in record time.

Now for a brief account of the Little Big Inch. Its construction began 23 April 1943 with the placing of the last pipe on the East Coast on 8 October 1943.

The Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines, it should be stressed, aided almost beyond estimation the winning of World War Two by the Allies. For one thing, protected as they were from enemy attack, it was possible to circumvent submarine attacks by the Germans, which had wreaked havoc on oil tankers from the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Caribbean to the East Coast. In fact, before the two pipelines began to operate German submarines had sunk so many tankers, there were many beaches on islands in the Caribbean, which were seriously polluted with oil. But, it must be added--the Big Inch and the Little Big Inch pipelines were both finished before the D-Day invasion at Normandy on 6 June 1944. That made possible the delivery of huge quantities of crude and its refined products for Operation Overlord, the code name for that landing in northern France.

Now, it cannot be stated too forcefully, American oil, which amounted in all to 6 billion barrels, out of a total of 7 billion barrels consumed by the Allies for the period of World War Two, brought victory! Without the prodigious delivery of oil from the U. S. this global war, quite frankly, could never have been won. Besides, without the outstanding cooperation of the Petroleum Administration for War with the numerous oil companies of America, World War Two very likely would never have been won by the Allies either. To dramatize that assertion, consider the following quote from a letter, dated 10 November 1945, to Ralph K. Davies, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Army-Navy Board:"at no time did the Services lack for oil in the proper quantities, in the proper kinds and at the proper places."

To conclude--this essay began with a anecdote about George S. Patton, American general and tank commander. Let me close with a refernce to a superior officer on the other side, Field-Marshall Karl Gerd Von Rundstedt of Germany. When interviewed by newspapermen, he readily admitted how important oil had been in World War two. In fact, he attributed German defeat to three factors, to wit: (1) the Allied bombing sorties (strategic and tactical); (2) the bombardments by Allied naval guns; and (3) Germany's own deficiency in oil, especially in the form of gasoline. What more need be said?

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Richard Posner - 10/21/2009

I find Mr. Neumann's comments nearly farcical. He lauds companies like Standard Oil for their cooperation, apparently unaware that the company refused to allow US companies to use their process for making artificial rubber because it was already exclusively licensed to IG Farben. In truth, Standard Oil threatened Roosevelt with cutting off oil supplies if his administration continued exposing their corporate officers' cooperation with Fascist/NAZI elements for decades prior to the war.
It is pure corporate propaganda, a re-writing of history no different than Stalin. I'm ashamed to see that no one has called him on it all these years later. I stumbled over this entry while researching a novel or else I would never have seen these lies.
'History' indeed!

Jean Peckham Kavale - 9/23/2009

On the subject of oil and gas for the troops during World War II, I would like to mention the important role of the army's Fuels and Lubricants Division. You can download an ebook on the subject from www.Lulu.com. The title is "Supplying the Troops with Oil and Gasoline: The Fuels and Lubricants Division in World War II."

Charles M. Browning - 5/3/2005

The Smith Portable pipelines were critical to the delivery of gasoline to the fronts and airfields in France. There were three six inch pipelines (two mogas and one avgas) from Cherbourg to Mainz (paralleling the 'Red Ball' Highway. A four inch line (avgas) and a six inch (mogas) line ran up the Rhone Valley from Marseilles. These lines could deliver almost 900 thousand gallons of fuel per day. These were steel pipes with 'Victaulic' couplings and could be laid rapidly. A larger number of pipelines delivered fuel from Antwerp to Brussels, between two tank farms. I believe there were eight lines there. BTW, General Patton did not believe in refilling the jerricans carried on the tanks, but expected the pipelines to be built as fast as his tanks could advance.

keith miller - 10/14/2001

To reiterate the vital role of U. S. oil in winning World War Two, consider this from Carl Coke Rister's Oil! Titan of the Southwest (1949): "petroleum was America's major contribution to the winning of the war," At the same time, oil was available to Germany in limited amounts. So, while Mr. Neumann's reference to oil in the Caucasus, or, really it would have been better to have said, from the Baku peninsula bordering the Caspian Sea (where oil was known from Old Testament times), the Germans were never able to get this oil! Their attack on Russia stalled before they reached those oil fields. In addition, see Charles Sterling Popple, Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) in World War II (1952) on the Rumanian oil industry, which did not fall to the Germans until the spring of 1940. But, that source of oil for Germany was soon curtailed severely. First, the Ploesti refineries were bombed, and, secondly, with the advance of Russian troops on Rumania, beginning in the fall of 1943, oil from there was further reduced. In fact, Rumanian production of oil had dropped from 125,000 barrels per day (which it amounted to in 1939) to no more than 45,000 barrels per day by May 1944. Also, by June 1944, Rumanian oil output had plummetted further to 30,000 barrels per day. Then, toward the end of August 1944, Russia captured the Rumanian oil fields, which meant the Germans could no longer get even what little remaining oil production there was still coming from that country (see Popple p. 160). As Popple also points out (p. 159), during the period of World War Two, except for oil from Russia, unavailable to Germany, only Rumania and Hungary had any significant production of oil in all of Europe. Now, it must be added, in spite of Mr. Neumann's contention (or at least his assumption), oil of the Middle East played a very limited role in Allied victory. The reason--oil output from the Middle East was relatively new to the world and not yet coming in large quantities. For instance, the first really important discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia (the country, which now has the world's greatest proven reserves of crude) did not come until 1938, five years after Standard Oil of California received a concession from King Abdulazziz. The oil field in question was that of Dhahran near shores of Persian Gulf, which Saudis prefer to call the Arabian Sea (see James Wiley, "Saudi Arabia, Land of Contrasts: Some Keys to (Understanding) the Kingdom," Focus 45 (Winter 1999): 29. To "clinch" my argument on the limited importance of oil from the Middle East in winning World War Two, some statistics of oil production from that region are offered here, as taken from Basic Petroleum Data Book (sect. 4. Table 10), published by American Petroleum Institute in 1999. In 1941 the entire Middle East produced only 74,531,000 barrels of oil (while in the same year, the U. S. delivered 1.4 billion). Though it is true that the yield of oil from the Middle East increased during the war years, it never amounted to much, when compared with the output from U. S. For example, the greatest production in any one year during World War Two from the Middle East (that of 1945) was only 194,258,000 barrels. But, in U. S., for that year came 1.7 billion barrels. So, with all due respect to Mr. Neumann, I had to set the record straight. In closing, let me cite a fine article "Geographic Aspects of Petroleum Use in World War II," in World Geography of Petroleum, ed. Wallace E. Pratt and Dorothy Good (1950), pp. 344-53. By the way, if any reader of this would like to know more about Wallace E. Pratt, one of the greatest petroleum geologists ever and an ardent conservationist, see my sketch of his life on American National Biography at www.anb.org (2001).

keith miller - 10/12/2001

One thing Mr. Neumann could not know--the original title (which HNN editor did not stay with) for my essay was "Fightin' Oil: American Petroleum and World War Two." even so, with the title, which was used instead, I think Mr. Neumann is missing a major point--in my essay I state that 6 billion of the 7 billion barrels of oil used by the Allies in fighting and winning World War Two came from American oil fields. So, while I accept the importance of oil supplies elsewhere in the world, that does not change the following fact--without U. S. oil (above all other sources) and the extraordinary cooperation between the U. S. governmemt and American oil companies, World War Two could never have been won by the Allied armies. I also take exception to Mr. Neumann's characterization of material treated in my essay (at least I assume this) as being too technical. I prefer the word "specificity," which one of my professors on my doctorate at Miami University of Ohio recommended so far as writing with precision is concerned. Too much writing, even in history, depends too much on generalizations, unsupported by detail. Having said as much, I still appreciate Mr. Neumann's commemts and will take them in stride. Keith Miller

Paul Neumann - 10/12/2001

The article is very interesting, but it is focused on American issues, and on technicalities.

During the WWII it was the oil of the Middle East and Caucasus that played the real strategic role. It was already the object of political issues before the outbreak of the war. It caused that there were waged the most important battles of the WWII: Caucasus and Stalingrad, North Africa and Alamein. Also it was the reason of such political actions like occupation of Iran and Iraq, winning the Arabs and Jews against each other, evacuation of the Polish troops from the USSR to the Middle East - just to name few of them; most important ones and having their consequences even nowadays.