Germany placed great importance on self-sufficiency in their war preparations. They implemented several strategies to achieve this goal, including the construction of synthetic oil production and rubber plants, prioritizing military over civilian economic policy, and stockpiling raw materials. Additionally, Germany envisioned a series of short wars or political takeovers of states in one-on-one actions. However, they did not anticipate the vast quantities of oil that would be required in the prolonged total war fought by their Allied enemies.
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German Prewar Oil Production and Supply
Germany’s main oil supply in the 1930s were Western Hemisphere nations including the United States, Venezuela, Mexico, and various Caribbean nations. These nations annually supplied between 63% to 72% during the 1930s of Germany’s total oil needs. However, after the start of hostilities in 1939 these supplies were halted by a successful Allied Naval blockade. By 1940 synthetic oil became Germany’s most significant oil source. And by 1942 more than 50% of Germany’s oil was synthetically derived. Finally, by 1944 for every metric ton of home or imported crude oil, Germany produced 1.5 metric tons of synthetic oil. Oil and other natural resources were great German weaknesses.
Germany’s Oil Synthesis
The synthesis of oil from coal during World War II required several resources and processes. Here are the essential resources involved:
- Coal was the primary raw material used for the synthesis of oil. It served as the carbon source for the production of synthetic fuels.
- Hydrogen gas was required for the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis process, which converted carbon monoxide derived from coal into synthetic oil. Hydrogen could be obtained from various sources, including water and natural gas.
- Catalysts were used in the Fischer-Tropsch process to facilitate the chemical reactions involved in converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen into synthetic oil. Common catalysts included iron, cobalt, and nickel.
- Energy Sources – The synthesis of oil from coal requires energy sources to power the various stages of the process, such as coal gasification and hydrogen production. These energy sources could include coal itself, natural gas, or other fuels.
- Infrastructure – The construction and operation of specialized plants and facilities were necessary for the large-scale production of synthetic oil from coal. These facilities included coal gasification plants, hydrogen production units, and Fischer-Tropsch reactors.
“However successful synthetic oil may have been at granting Germany some degree of petroleum independence, the technology did not come cheap. Capital and construction costs for the average F-T plant were on average RM 30 million ($75 million). Production costs for synthetic oil and refined fuel products were also exponentially higher than that for natural crude. The average manufacturing cost for a barrel of synthetic oil was between RM 32-45 ($13-18) and processed fuel values averaged 23-26 pfennig per kg (approximately 31-44 cents per gallon). In comparison, a barrel of crude oil traded for 93 cents on the U.S. commodities exchange in December 1939, and in the same month a gallon of regular gasoline sold for 13.4 cents at the average New York City service station.” (1)(1) Keller, Shawn P., Major, USAF, “Turning Point: A History of German Petroleum in World War II And Its Lessons for The Role of Oil in Modern Air Warfare”, Air Command And Staff College Air University, Pages 8-9. See https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1020261.pdf
In the year 1944, Germany’s annual synthetic fuel production reached its peak production at more than 124,000 barrels per day from their 25 plants. In contrast, the US in 1944, when 115/145 octane aviation gas was introduced, would produce 595,238 barrels a day of just aviation gas. The US averaged over five million barrels of oil a day in 1944. The Soviet Union was producing over 800,000 barrels a day in 1944.
In conclusion, Germany’s pursuit of self-sufficiency in oil during World War II led them to develop synthetic oil production from coal. While this technology provided some degree of petroleum independence, it came at a high cost and was not as efficient as natural crude oil. Germany’s annual synthetic fuel production reached its peak in 1944, but it was still significantly lower than the production levels of the United States and the Soviet Union during the same period
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Source: Ellis, John, “The World War II Databook”, BCA by arrangements with Aurum Press Ltd., 1993, Page 275, Table 82
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