by David Chibo for the Saker Blog

The Age of Coal

The “age of coal” that powered the steam warship was relatively brief, lasting from 1871 until 1914. During this period the Empire that most dominated, Great Britain, had some of the largest coal deposits in the world, and they had helped fuel the greatest Navy and merchant fleet, on the eve of WW I. The British Royal Navy’s supremacy would eventually be used to blockade Germany and eventually force it to finally surrender in 1918.

Some leaders, foresaw that oil would become the dominant energy source of the 20th century eventually powering ships, trucks, planes and eventually tanks. Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Royal Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, had created a commission with explicit instructions to transition to the new energy source as early as 1912: “You have got to find the oil; to show how it can be stored cheaply: how it can be purchased regularly & cheaply in peace, and with absolute certainty during war.”

The first oil powered battleship was the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the lead ship of her class of dreadnought battleships built for the Royal Navy in the early 1910s.

On a strategic level, control of oil, would come to dictate who controlled the world.

The European War

In 1939, Germany imported 60% of its petroleum requirements. At the time the world’s major oil producer was the United States of America, producing 70% of the world’s crude oil. The second biggest oil producer was Venezuela followed by the Soviet Union – with over 75% of its oil coming from Baku, alone. Elsewhere, in the Middle East, the oil industry in British-controlled Iraq and Iran was at its infancy and what little it did produce could not be easily transported to Europe.

On the eve of World War II the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed in August 1939. It was a neutrality deal concocted by Hitler and Stalin that gave both Empires their own “sphere of influence” and allowed them to invade and partition Poland in September, 1939.

Great Britain and France consequently declared war on Germany on the 3rd September, 1939. Shortly after they began to enforce a naval blockade that prevented oil from getting to Germany. This forced Hitler to increasingly rely on his Soviet ally: “Britain, wooed to the last moment, had declared war on him, placing him in a position of strategic and economic dependence on the state whose annihilation was his central objective, the Soviet Union.”

Germany and the Soviet Union went on to sign the German–Soviet Commercial Agreement on February 11, 1940. Under that agreement, the Soviet Union became a major supplier of vital materials to Germany, including petroleum, manganese, copper, nickel, chrome, platinum, lumber and grain – allowing Germany to alleviate the British naval blockade.


The Allies realised early on that if they hoped to win they would have to attack both Germany and Russia’s strategic oil reserves.

Operation Pike was the code-name for a strategic bombing plan, overseen by Air Commodore John Slessor, against the Soviet Union by the Anglo-French alliance.

On March 22, 1940 the French Commander in Chief General Gamelin sent a special note to the new French Prime Minister Reynaud where he stressed on the fact that the optimum way to cripple Germany would be through the aerial strategic bombing of Baku in order to destroy the local oil fields, where — according to the document — 75% of the Soviet Union’s oil was produced. “Baku bombing would put the Soviets into the critical situation, as long as Moscow requires every single drop of oil that is produced today in order to provide the fuel for the Soviet motorized units and the agricultural equipment.”

On April 17, 1940 General Weygand reported to French government and Commander in Chief that the plan to attack the Soviet Union’s oil fields had been completed and was awaiting their order for attack: “Preparation for the bombings of Caucasian oil fields made such progress that we may calculate the precise time required to conduct this operation”.

The French general command scheduled the bombing of the Soviet Union’s strategic oil reserves at the end of June, 1940. The plans were however cancelled when Germany invaded France and the Low Countries on 10 May, 1940.

In May 1941, almost a year after the surrender of France, and just 10 days before the launch of Germany’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, English historian J. Butler wrote that “a specific opinion emerged in London — the one expressing the idea that having created the threat to the Caucasian oil, it would be possible to exert the pressure against Russia in the most suitable way…On the 12th of June Heads of Staff Committee decided to assume the measures that would allow [them] to conduct the strikes against the oil refining plants in Baku using the average bombers from Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan without any delays.”

German Oil Reserves

Germany, it’s newly captured territories, its industrial economy and successful Blitzkrieg tactics – requiring the high manoeuvrability of its troops and armoured units – all relied heavily on oil.

Prior to the war, under the Weimer Republic, Germany set about creating its own synthetic oil production extracted from coal. But synthetic oil production could only supply a portion of Germany’s war time needs.

During WW2 Romania had developed into Germany’s chief overland supplier of oil. From 2.8 million barrels in 1938, Romania’s exports to Germany increased to 13 million barrels by 1941, a level that was essentially maintained through 1942 and 1943.

But even this amount, along with the oil being provided by the Soviet Union, at the time, wasn’t enough for both the economy and the German military. Strategically Hitler realised that he needed to eventually control the source of that oil. As early as 31st of July 1940, Halder records Hitler making the fateful decision to start planning for the attack on the Soviet Union: “With Russia smashed, Britain’s last hope would be shattered.”

According to a presentation General der Infanterie Georg Thomas, head of the War Economy and Armaments Office gave to Keitel on 08 February 1941, existing supplies of petroleum products would no longer be “sufficient” by the “middle of August” or the autumn at the latest.

In March, 1941, General Eduard Wagner, the Army Quartermaster General, gave an equally gloomy prognosis to Halder, informing him that, once Germany lost its imports from the Soviet Union, existing stocks were only sufficient for two months of “large-scale offensive” consumption.

As a result by May 1941, General Adolf von Schell, the man responsible for the motor vehicle industry, seriously suggested that in light of the chronic shortage of oil it would be advisable to carry out a partial ‘demotorization’ of the Wehrmacht.

Operation Barbarossa

As early as March, 1941 General der Infanterie Georg Thomas, in agreement with Hitler, had outlined the grand strategy: “It is crucial”, Thomas insisted, “ seize quickly and exploit the Caucasus oilfields, at least the areas around Maikop and Grozny. In oilfields that have not been completely destroyed, it will take about a month to resume production, and another month for its transport; the areas concerned will have to have been seized by us by no later than the end of the second month of operation…….If this is not successful, we must expect the most serious repercussions, with unpredictable consequences for military operations after 1.9. [1941] and for the survival of the economy.”

Due primarily to their 3 months of wartime oil reserves, Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941, when eventually launched. was designed to be a short overwhelming campaign using petrol-guzzling panzers to encircle and wipe out the Soviets out at the border and then rapidly advance on the Caucuses, before the German army ran out of oil and lost the strategic initiative.

In August 1941 General Heinz Guderian disagreed with Hitler’s decision to divert part of Army Group Center and help Army Group South capture Kiev, Hitler tried fruitlessly to explain: “that the raw materials and agriculture of the Ukraine were vitally necessary for the future prosecution of the war. He spoke once again of the need of neutralising the Crimea, ‘that Soviet aircraft carrier for attacking the Rumanian oilfields.’ For the first time I heard him use the phrase: ‘My generals know nothing about the economic aspects of war.’ Hitler’s words all led up to this: he had given strict orders that the attack on Kiev was to be the immediate strategic object and all actions were to be carried out with that in mind.”

Hitler’s Generals, on the other hand, continued to pressure and eventually derail his grand strategy urging him to capture Moscow, not the Caucuses, first: “Reluctantly Hitler gave in to the urging of Brauchitsch, Halder and Bock and consented to the resumption of the drive on Moscow. But too late!”

According to Stephen G. Fritz: “The German military leadership, in fact, displayed a woeful lack of understanding of economic factors. By training and tradition focused almost exclusively on the operational-tactical aspects of planning, the OKH designed a plan based on the lessons of the 1940 French campaign that emphasized a swift, decisive, concentric thrust toward the enemy capital, unconcerned by the fact that the economically vital regions lay in the south.”

Russia’s Generals had a better strategic outlook on how to prosecute the war. In a December, 1941 speech, General Timoshenko stated: “If Germany succeeds in taking Moscow that is obviously a grave disappointment for us, but it by no means disrupts our grand strategy… Germany would gain accommodation, but that alone will not win the war. The only thing that matters is oil. As we remember, Germany kept harping on about her own urgent oil problems in her economic bargaining with us from 1939 to 1941. So we have to do all we can (a) to make Germany increase her oil consumption, and (b) to keep the German armies out of the Caucasus.”

At the height of Germany’s blitzkrieg in 1941, shortages began to appear on the home front, and the fuel situation became critical: “So tight were fuel rations that in November 1941 Opel was forced to shut down production at its Brandenburg plant, Germany’s largest truck factory, because it lacked the petrol necessary to check the fuel pumps of vehicles coming off the assembly line. A special allocation of 104 cubic metres of fuel had to be arranged by the Wehrmacht’s economic office so as to ensure that there were no further interruptions.”

By December 1941 the Germany army, were stopped at the gates of Moscow. Most historians attribute the failure to capture Moscow in 1941 to General Winter, but the truth is that the Germany army, despite having absolute priority, essentially ran out of fuel at the gates of Moscow.

The German army had more than enough men, winter clothing, supplies and tanks at the time as they were able to replace most of their losses but the lack of fuel to power their army meant that they lost combat effectiveness.

The German army didn’t run out of tanks and trucks, it ran out of fuel to power them. They were essentially not able to transport and distribute the reinforcements, winter clothing, supplies and equipment to their men and many subsequently froze to death.

Hitler’s, much criticised, “hold-fast” orders in the winter of 1941 were wisely issued to prevent a rout of the Germany army and remain within their winter quarters conserving their dwindling fuel supplies and preparing for a summer counter-offensive.


Hitler takes over from his Generals at a time when: “Fuel, too, was in such short supply that the Wehrmacht High Command [in 1942] cut the fuel ration to the Ostheer [German army] considerably, a blow to its mobility accentuated by the serious loss of horses.”

In May, 1942, during planning for Operation Blue, Hitler’s last chance of winning the war, he candidly states: “If I do not get the oil of Maikop and Grozny, then I must end the war.”

According to Stephen G. Fritz in June 1942 at the onset of the campaign the impediments to German mobility were nearly catastrophic: “Tellingly, at a time when the Soviets were rapidly rebuilding and mechanizing their forces, the Wehrmacht was in the process of reequipping its reconnaissance units with bicycles. This demodernization of the Ostheer [German army] did not bode well given that the success of the campaign depended on seizing objectives more than eight hundred miles from the German start line, an operational and logistic challenge greater even than that of the previous summer.”

Hitler splits Army group South into Army Group A and B.

Army Group A is tasked with securing Germany’s strategic oil supply by swinging into the Caucasus from the south of Kharkov and capturing Maikop, Grozny, and, depending on their progress and supply lines, continuing on to capture Baku.

Meanwhile Army Group B is simultaneously tasked with denying the Soviet Union’s strategic oil lifeline, by capturing the transport hub and cutting the vital transport of oil supplies from Baku via the Volga, at the bend in the mighty river that will come to be known as Stalingrad.

According to Dr. Anand Torpani: “The loss of the Caucasus would deprive the Soviet Union of half of its oil reserves and 80–90 percent of its crude oil production, refinery throughput, and pipeline capacity. Meanwhile, severing the transit lines along the Volga would eliminate the most effective means of moving oil to central Russia from either the Caucasus, covering a distance of 1,200 kilometers on average to reach its domestic consumers, or the Volga-Urals (the “Second Baku”).”

In November, 1942 after the Soviet counteroffensive surrounded Stalingrad, Anand Toprani goes on to explain Hitler’s reasoning behind his “stand-fast” and Luftwaffe supply by air order that doomed the German 6th Army: “Consequently, there is every reason to think that the loss of the Caucasus would have rendered the Red Army combat ineffective within a year.”

By capturing and holding Stalingrad and cutting the oil shipments traveling up the Volga River, Hitler had gambled, and spectacularly lost, on his own extended supply lines being supplied by the Caucuses sustaining his army in a “death-grip” that he hoped would strangle the Soviet Union’s oil arteries, and eventually drain away the Red Army’s mobility.

The Pacific War

Oil played a no less an important role in the Pacific War.

The Empires of the U.S., Britain, France and the Netherlands each possessed colonies in East and Southeast Asia. After signing the Tripartite pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940, Japan began to eye the colonies and oil resources of the defeated French and Dutch Empires in particular. Japan’s new military power and willingness to use it to further the Empire, it dubbed the “East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” threatened all Western colonies in Asia.

By June 1941 the Japanese had been in economic negotiations with the Dutch East Indies government in Batavia since September 1940 and were seeking a special economic position in the Netherlands East Indies. At an Imperial conference on 2 July, Japan decided to adopt the “Outline of the Empire national Policy to Cope with the Changing Situation.” The policy, which was not trying to provoke the U.S., British or Netherlands Empires called for a daring plan to force the Netherlands East Indies to accede to her demands by occupying southern French Indochina and achieve local military dominance.

Thus on July 24 Japan occupied key airfields in Indochina, after an agreement between Japan and Vichy France. This led to a U.S. freeze on Japanese assets on July 26, 1941, and the establishment of an embargo on oil and gasoline exports to Japan on August 1.

This move was most distressing to the Japanese who, at the time, imported 80 percent of their oil from the U.S., the world’s largest oil producer. Japan tried to alleviate the shortfall by purchasing 3.15 million barrels from the Dutch East Indies, but was only offered 1.35 million, less than half of the Japanese request. However even before the oil embargo, the U.S. had frozen Japanese credit, severely curtailing its ability to purchase even the 1.35 million barrels that had been offered.

The British soon joined the oil embargo and then, after further prompting by the Allies, the Dutch government in exile broke its economic treaty with Japan and also joined, cutting off oil from the Dutch East Indies.

Japanese Oil Reserves

At the time Japan had oil stockpiles that could supply its peacetime needs for 2 years, but this decreased to about 1 year, if Japan went to war, due to the huge oil requirements needed to fight a naval war.

According to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the asset freezing and oil embargo clamped on Japan prior to Pearl Harbor “made war with Japan inevitable….” He notes that “a general impoverishment” of the Japanese economy was threatened with insufficient oil for “normal domestic consumption, let along naval operations.”

The American oil embargo started the clock ticking and the planners in Japan’s imperial headquarters had either to decide to cede China and the Pacific to the fast-rising U.S. Empire or go to war before it ran out of oil to fuel their fleet, as well as rubber, rice and other vital reserves.

By the end of 1941, at the latest, Japan would need to capture new supply sources in the oil-rich Dutch East Indies, which the United States and the other Empires would surely oppose. In order to capture and secure its new colonies the Japanese Empire would need to give the U.S. Empire’s naval and air power a “bloody nose” in the Pacific.

Prelude to Pearl Harbour

The U.S. was, in theory, a democratic nation, ruling an isolationist population. After years of providing overt economic and covert military assistance to Britain and China, against Germany and Japan, George Victor in his well documented book The Pearl Harbor Myth states that: “According to Attorney General Francis Biddle, Roosevelt said he hoped for an ‘incident’ in the Pacific to bring the United States into the European war.”

As far back as July 1940, Admiral J.O. Richardson had disagreed with Roosevelt to keep the fleet in Hawaii, and he had flown to Washington to protest the decision to station the naval base in Pearl Harbor, which was deemed indefensible for a variety of reasons, including that it was vulnerable in any direction, could not be effectively rigged with nets and lacked adequate fuel supplies and dry docks: “I came away with the impression that, despite his spoken word, the President was fully determined to put the United States into the war if Great Britain could hold out until he was reelected.”

At a cabinet meeting on November 7 1941, U.S. Secretary of State Hull warned that Japan might attack at any time. Roosevelt ordered him to keep the negotiations going and to “do nothing to precipitate a crisis.”

On November 22, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto ordered the First Carrier Division at Hitokappu Bay in the Kuriles, north of Japan’s main islands, to “move out…on 26 November and proceed without being detected to the evening rendezvous point…set for 3 December. X-day will be December 8 [Japanese time].”

On November 25, 1941, Roosevelt invited the country’s political and military leaders to the White House. Although not quoting Roosevelt directly, U.S. Secretary of Defense Stimson says that he “brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday [December 1],….and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

On 4 December a 26 page memorandum from the Office of Naval Intelligence, adds to proof that Washington had ignored warnings that war was imminent: “In anticipation of possible open conflict with this country, Japan is vigorously utilizing every available agency to secure military, naval and commercial information, paying particular attention to the West Coast, the Panama Canal and the Territory of Hawaii.”

The daughter of the late Don C. Smith, who directed the War Service for the Red Cross before World War II, revealed that, “…before the attack in 1941 President Roosevelt called him [Smith] to the White House for a meeting concerning a Top Secret matter. At this meeting the President advised my father that his intelligence staff had informed him of a pending attack on Pearl Harbor, by the Japanese. He anticipated many casualties and much loss, he instructed my father to send workers and supplies to a holding area at a P.O.E. [port of entry] on the West Coast where they would await further orders to ship out, no destination was to be revealed. He left no doubt in my father’s mind that none of the Naval and Military officials in Hawaii were to be informed and he was not to advise the Red Cross officers who were already stationed in the area. When he protested to the President, President Roosevelt told him that the American people would never agree to enter the war in Europe unless they were attack [sic] within their own borders.”

Attack on Pearl Harbor

On 7 August 1941 the Japanese Empire’s naval and air forces attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor and destroyed 19 ships, 347 aircraft, killed 2,335 and injured 1,143 other military personnel.

Meanwhile as devastating as the first strike’s losses appeared on paper, the attack at Pearl Harbor had taken place with the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers out to sea. Furthermore the U.S. battleships that had been docked at Pearl Harbor were, according to Professor Thomas C. Hone: “…all old; several were nearly overage; most were overweight. None of the battleships in Pearl Harbor was a first-line warship in a material sense; all had recognized deficiencies.”

Admiral Nagumo‘s task force, having achieved its primary mission became uneasy about the location of the missing U.S. aircraft carriers. A second strike on Pearl Harbor focusing on the dockyards, fuel tanks, and remaining ships was subsequently cancelled.

On that day by focusing on the Pacific Fleet, rather than the Pacific Fleet’s strategic oil supply, and by cancelling the second strike, the Japanese lost the Pacific war even while it was starting. For by far, the most surprising target oversight of the Japanese attack was the fuel supply of the entire Pacific Fleet, stored in above-ground oil and gas storage tanks on the eastern side of the naval base. These tanks were particularly susceptible to enemy action, and even a few bombs dropped amongst the tanks could have started a raging conflagration.

The Japanese knew the importance of oil to a fighting fleet as they had just started a war to achieve a secure source for that very same commodity. Reflecting the misunderstanding of their German counterparts, the Japanese commanders, according to Gordon William Prange, similarly focused on tactical rather than strategic logistical targets: “The Japanese knew all about those oil storage tanks. Their failure to bomb the Fleet’s oil supply reflected their preoccupation with tactical rather than logistical targets . . . . Nagumo’s mission was to destroy Kimmel’s ships and the airpower on Oahu. If Yamamoto and his advisers chose the wrong targets, or insufficiently diversified ones, the mistake rests on their shoulders . . . .”

Pearl Harbor was the only refueling, replacement, and repair point for ships operating in the Hawaiian area. Admiral Nimitz is also on record to have marvelled at the fortuitous preservation of 10 years of accumulated oil supplies: “We had about 4.5 million barrels of oil out there and all of it was vulnerable to .50-caliber bullets. Had the Japanese destroyed the oil, it would have prolonged the war another two years.”

Furthermore, the total capacity of the Pacific Fleet’s oil tankers was 760,000 barrels of oil. In the first 9 days after Pearl Harbor, the fleet had expended 750,000 barrels of this sum. Thus, the fleet was tied to its oil supply at Pearl Harbor and the loss of this amount of oil would have effectively driven the U.S. Pacific Fleet back to the west coast, prevented it from exercising its primary war plan and effectively knocked almost all ships of the Pacific Fleet out of contention, instead of just 19.

The Japanese commanders’ should have focussed on strategically attacking the U.S. oil supply at Pearl Harbor and followed up that raid with attacks on US oilers and tankers in the Pacific using their submarines.

The Dutch East Indies

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor cautioned his superiors that Japan must win a quick, decisive victory lest it awaken the vast American logistics, manpower and industrial capacity. He presciently predicted the future outcome of a war against the United States stating: “I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success.”

In the first 6 months of their war the Japanese managed to dismantle the colonies in Southeast Asia that the European Empires had taken centuries to build. They captured Guam and the Wake Islands simultaneously with the Pearl Harbor attack and then invaded the Philippines, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, the Malay Peninsula, Manila, Rangoon, Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta. By early 1942 the Japanese had conquered or appeased Thailand, Indochina, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, the Celebes, Timor, the Bismarks, the Gilberts, most of the Solomons, and half of New Guinea.

The Allied demolition of South East Asian oil wells, storage facilities and refineries provided to be only a temporary setback to oil production in the region and output was quickly restarted. Due to a lack of technicians, oil industry technology and equipment the Japanese were never able to regain the pre-war annual production of 65 million barrels, but even the post-1942 output of 48 million barrels was more than enough to meet their needs without using their strategic reserves.

By May 1942 the Japanese finally achieved what Hitler failed to achieve in Europe – capture enough oil fields required for Japan’s full oil independence. However much of the oil produced from Southeast Asia never made it back to Japan. The problem, according to Francis Pike, lay in transporting it back to the mainland: “In theory South East Asian production combined with synthetic domestic production, easily met Japan’s required annual consumption that was 36.9 million tons in 1941 (of which the Army and Navy accounted for approximately 24 million barrels), rising to a peak of 43.9 million tons in 1943. However, imports of all oil products to Japan never exceeded 1.4 million tons per month and the highest annual figure for imports was achieved with 13.5 million tons in 1943.”

Japan’s exist oil tanker fleet was totally inadequate and could not possibly cope with the demand to transport the newly acquired oil back to their homeland where it needed to be refined. As a result the Japanese began to sharply increase aggregate tanker tonnage from 575,000 tons in January 1942 to peak of 809,000 in July 1943.

War Strategy

On 11 December 1941, Hitler also declared war on the United States. Weeks later German Admiral Karl Doenitz’s U-boats launched Operation Paukenschlag (Roll of the Drums) attacking U.S. shipping in the West Atlantic.

Ignoring the U.S. navy their prime targets were merchant ships, with an emphasis on oil tankers, and 70% of the losses were oil tankers at an average of 130,000 barrels. If the attrition rate were kept up, the Allies would lose half their tanker fleet in 1 year.

German submarines eventually sank 391 ships in the western Atlantic, 141 of which were tankers. As Doenitz summed it up, “Can anyone tell me what good tanks and trucks and airplanes are if the enemy doesn’t have the fuel for them?”

In another stark example of the Axis’s divergent prosecution of the war, the Japanese operational strategy of focusing only on symmetric targets, like warships, was adhered to even when asymmetric U.S. vulnerabilities were present. And by late 1942, the Japanese had already lost all ability to exploit this weakness and had handed the strategic initiative to the U.S.

Just before the Battle of Midway, the U.S. naval decoders had managed to mostly decipher the Japanese radio codes and had gained access to most of the shipping lanes that transported Japanese oil to their homeland.

The U.S. were quick learners. From the war’s first day, US submarines took the war to Japanese shipping. Initially unsystematic, by 1943 the Navy had made oil tankers the top submarine target. As U.S. forces constricted Japan’s Empire, they began supporting the blockade with U.S. Air Force armed reconnaissance, aerial mining, and attacks on oil installations.

The U.S. war of attrition, using submarines and the U.S.A.F. to attack the enemy’s oil tankers and infrastructure throughout the war would result in the sinking of one hundred and ten oil tankers. This oil first strategy was remarkably successful according to Francis Pike: “The net result of this failure to bring enough oil from the Dutch East Indies was that after 1943, the largest portions of the Imperial Navy’s oil-guzzling fleet (18 million barrels per annum) had to be kept in southern waters, close to the source of supply. What should have been a huge advantage in terms of short lines of communication to the Japanese home islands versus a U.S. fleet that had to haul its logistical support across the Pacific, was therefore largely negated.”

Fuel Shortage

From the start even Japan’s estimated wartime oil consumption was too optimistic. In June 1942 the week-long Battle of Midway alone had consumed more fuel than the Japanese Navy had ever used before in an entire year of peacetime operations.

Prior to war, it took 4,000 hours of flight time for a Japanese pilot to be certified as carrier-capable. In war, more than aircraft or even carriers, Japan could not replace lost pilots because of these oil shortages. As a result the very limited supply of trained pilots diminished through attrition only to be replaced by untrained replacements. This shortage became pronounced by June 1944 at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, when the aerial combat resulted in the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” in which the Japanese lost 273 planes against U.S. losses of 29.

It wasn’t just the Japanese air-force that was affected by the oil shortage. In the Japanese Army, extreme aggressiveness, forced marching, and bicycles, were seen as substitutes for oil powered tank, motorised and transport forces.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, who had given priority on oil were also affected as the war dragged on. During an interview after the war, Admiral Takeo Kurita explained why in October 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, his fleet had been annihilated. He had deployed his ships on a dangerous night passage through the San Bernardino Strait. “I was low on fuel,” he said. Kurita’s fleet tankers had been sunk or dispersed. The only fuel available to the Japanese ships was whatever was in their own tanks. “Fuel was an important consideration, the basic one,” said Kurita. There was not enough fuel for his ships to sail around the adjacent landmasses, so they were forced by necessity to transit the relatively narrow straits. Thus conceding the element of surprise to the vigilant Americans, many of Kurita’s ships never had the opportunity even to turn around before being sent to the bottom by U.S. submarines and air power.

Having lost the strategic initiative, Japan’s basic military tactics changed from defending against American attacks on many fronts to struggling to preserve its dwindling levels of oil reserves. In February 1945, electing to conserve fuel for the final defence of the Japanese homeland, forces of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps met with no sea or naval resistance whatsoever during the invasion of Iwo Jima.

Bushido Tactics

The militarist government of Japan had adopted the concepts of Bushido to condition the country’s population to be ideologically obedient to the emperor and to make the ultimate sacrifice in their execution of the war.

Within the Imperial Japanese Army, as oil shortages started to bite, they fell back to their ancient customs and called upon the spirit of Bushido and began to adopt, what the Allies referred to as banzai charges as a preferred suicidal tactic. When Japanese soldiers were unable to be supplied by sea, were cut off on their islands, short of supplies, ammunition and faced imminent defeat they increasingly resorted to these ineffective banzai charges.

The lack of oil also forced Imperial Air Service to adopt similar desperation tactics. Starting on 25 October 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Kamikaze Special Attack Force carried out its first mission. Five A6M Zeros, led by Seki, and escorted to the target by leading Japanese ace Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, attacked several escort carriers.

Unlike the banzai charges, the World War II statistics of the combat effectiveness of the kamikaze could not be disputed. According to Dr. Richard P. Hallion, in manpower alone, each kamikaze on average killed 2 U.S. sailors: “Approximately 2,800 Kamikaze attackers sunk 34 Navy ships, damaged 368 others, killed 4,900 sailors, and wounded over 4,800. Despite radar detection and cuing, airborne interception and attrition, and massive anti-aircraft barrages, a distressing 14 percent of Kamikazes survived to score a hit on a ship; nearly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank.” Three of the Navy ships sunk were the enormous escort carriers that had been used to support the U.S. naval and military campaigns.

In April 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa the Imperial Navy sent the Yamato on a one-way suicide mission to Okinawa with orders to beach herself and fight until destroyed protecting the island. With their naval codes already broken she was spotted south of Kyushu by US submarines and aircraft, and on 7 April 1945 she was sunk by American carrier-based bombers and torpedo bombers with the loss of the majority of her crew.

Japanese Surrender

By early 1945, almost all ships of the Japanese fleet had been docked. Powerful battleships, and even aircraft carriers, that had cost immense sums to construct before the war with the U.S., were docked for lack of fuel.

By July 1945 the U.S. Air Force had conducted 15 operations against Japanese oil facilities destroying six of the nine targets attacked for the loss of four B-29s. However, as Japan had almost no crude oil to refine due to the successful Allied naval blockade of the home islands these raids had little impact on the country’s war effort.

After Japan’s official surrender, in August 1945, the U.S. began to arrest the Japanese architects of the war. On 11 September American officials approached the residence of General Hideki Tojo, the wartime premier, who was told to prepare to be arrested. He chose to shoot himself in the chest instead. His fate at the time, much like that of the Empire he had led, depended on the key commodity that had been strategically denied to them: “Now, in 1945, Tojo’s own life hung in the balance, not because his self-inflicted wound was inevitably fatal, which it was not, but because of the difficulty, first, in locating a suitable doctor, and then in finding an ambulance that had any gasoline in its tank. So widespread was the fuel shortage that it proved easier to find an American doctor than an ambulance with gasoline. But finally a vehicle with sufficient fuel was located, and it arrived at Tojo’s house two hours after he had shot himself. Tojo was carried off to the hospital and nursed back to health.”

An American naval officer Thomas Moorer who had retired as a four-star admiral and chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered a succinct post mortem to the Japanese Empire: “The lesson I learned,” said Moorer, “was never lose a war.” And the American admiral added, “The way to lose a war is to run out of oil.”

Axis Similarities

The German and Japanese Empires’ lack of strategic alignment is evident in 1940 when the Japanese, who originally wanted to attack the Soviet Union, decided to attack the United States. In that same year Hitler gave up on his plan to attack Britain and decided to attack the Soviet Union inb its place. Meanwhile Mussolini attacked the British in Egypt and the Greeks in late 1940 without consulting his allies and forced Hitler to send forces to assist him.

Similarities Germany Japan
Main Strength German Army Imperial Navy
Oil Reserves 3 months (war), 6 months (peace) 1 year (war), 2 years (peace)
Oil Blockade By Great Britain forced it to attack Soviet Union in June 1941. By the U.S. forced it to attack the Allies in December 1941.
Strategic goal Capture Caucuses (Grozny, Maikop and Baku) and protect West Volga (Stalingrad) flank. Capture Dutch East Indies, South East Asian oil regions and protect oil shipping lanes.
Strategy Diverted Attacking Moscow in “Operation Typhoon” Attacked battleships rather than oil reserves and oil tankers at Pearl Harbour
Offensive Tactics Blitzkrieg Decisive Battle Doctrine
Defensive Tactics Hitler’s “stand-fast” orders. Bushido including army banzai charges, aerial and naval kamikaze attacks.

Italy aside, the table above summarise the similarities between Germany and Japan during World War II.

The Germans holding only 3 months of wartime oil reserves in mid-1941 are, pressured because of an oil blockade initiated by Great Britain, to use blitzkrieg to attack the Soviet Unions to capture the Caucuses region and secure their Empire’s strategic oil needs.

Similarly the Japanese holding only 1 year of wartime oil reserves by the end of 1941 are, pressured because of an oil blockade initiated by the U.S., to attack the Allies using their Decisive Battle Doctrine and capture their colonies, including the Dutch East Indies, and secure their Empire’s strategic oil needs.

Both Axis Empires had strategically lost the war by the end of 1941, but didn’t know it at the time. In October 1941, Hitler’s generals had diverted him from his strategic plan to capture the Caucuses and instead launched Operation Typhoon, in an attempt to capture Moscow. And after Germany’s offensive tactics had used up all of their oil Hitler correctly ordered “stand-fast” orders that had allowed the Germans to consolidate their defensive winter positions.

The Imperial Japanese generals also neglected to bomb the oil storage tanks and infrastructure at Pearl Harbour focusing on bombing of the U.S. battleships instead. As their oil supplies dwindled during the war they reverted to banzai death charges, aerial kamikaze attacks and suicidal naval engagements to make up for the loss of their strategic initiative.

Axis Strategy

The lack of an overall coherent strategy and focus on oil doomed the Axis powers to fighting a losing war from the very start. Had Germany worked with Japan to simultaneously attack the Soviet Union on the Western and Eastern fronts in June 1941 the Soviet Union would not have been able to divert its fresh Siberian reserves to the Eastern front in 1941. Also had Hitler ignored his Generals, cancelled Operation Typhoon and instead unleashed Operation Blue in 1941, there is a highly likely chance that the Germans would’ve captured the Caucuses and its oil regions and facilities untouched by Stalin’s “scorched earth” policy, along with Stalingrad and entrenched themselves on the Western bank of the Volga before the winter of 1941. This would’ve placed the Axis in a strategically strong defensive position to resist Soviet counterattacks on two fronts in 1942 and slowly choked the oil lifeline to the Soviet Union forcing it to surrender by the end of 1942.

Having secured the Eurasian heartland along the eastern and western axial, the Axis powers could then have easily consolidated their power and shared the Baku oil for further offensives against the Allies and their colonies by 1943.

Oil Super Empires

There is an old saying that “Amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics.”  The World War II Empires (Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan) lacked indigenous oil reserves and were therefore dependent on foreign sources. Britain and France were able to draw on over-seas sources of supply from Iran, Mexico, and the United States, while the Germans were limited to oil from Romania.

It was only the U.S and Soviet Empires that had secure indigenous supplies of oil at the outbreak of World War II. Access and securing of this black-gold was a predictor of not just military power and eventual victory during the war, but also future super power status that would see both the U.S. and the Soviet Union emerge from the war as oil-backed super empires.

David Chibo is an Australian-born Iraqi from the Assyrian community. He spent six months prior to the US invasion of Iraq working in northern Iraq with local aid groups delivering humanitarian relief as well as providing technical training to the local population. 

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