Oil campaign of World War II

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Oil campaign[1]
Part of the Strategic Bombing Campaign in Europe
during World War II
"The Sandman", a B-24 Liberator, emerging from smoke over the Astra Română refinery, Ploiești, during Operation "Tidal Wave" (1 August 1943)
The Sandman, a B-24 Liberator, emerges from smoke over the Astra Română refinery, Ploiești,[2] during Operation "Tidal Wave" (1 August 1943).[3]
Date15 May 1940 – 26 April 1945
Result Allied victory
 Kingdom of Hungary
Commanders and leaders
Carl Krauch
Ion Antonescu
Paul Pleiger
347 strikes
RAF Bomber Command
158 strikes[4]: 315 
in 1945
175 strikes (31 RAF)
See Defence of the Reich
Casualties and losses
5,400 aircraft lost
(4,300 by fighters)[4]: 316 

The Allied oil campaign of World War II[5]: 11  pitted the RAF and the USAAF against facilities supplying Nazi Germany with petroleum, oil, and lubrication (POL) products. It formed part of the immense Allied strategic bombing effort during the war. The targets in Germany and in Axis-controlled Europe[6] included refineries, synthetic-fuel factories, storage depots and other POL-infrastructure.

Before the war, Britain had identified Germany's reliance on oil and oil products for its war machine, and the strategic bombing started with RAF attacks on Germany in 1940. After the US entered the war (December 1941), it carried out daytime "precision bombing" attacks – such as Operation Tidal Wave against refineries in Romania in 1943.[7] The last major strategic raid of the European theater of the war targeted a refinery in Norway in April 1945. During the war the effort expended against POL targets varied, with relative priority sometimes given to other objectives (such as to defeating the German V-weapon attacks or to preparations for the invasion of western Europe in 1944).

The strategic importance of oil resources in World War II also showed in campaigns such as:

Campaign strategy[edit]

The British had identified the importance of Germany's fuel supplies before the war in their "Western Air Plan 5(c)".[8]: 56  The focus of British bombing during 1940 changed repeatedly in response to directives from the Air Ministry. At the start of June, oil targets were made a priority of night bombing with attacks on other war industry to be made on dark nights (when the oil targets could not be located) but with the proviso that "indiscriminate action" should be avoided. On 20 June oil targets were made third priority below the German aircraft industry and lines of communication between Germany and the armies at the front. Following a brief period when German shipping was given priority, oil targets were made secondary priority in mid July under a policy of concentrated attack with five oil refineries listed for attention.[8]: 56–57  Sir Charles Portal was sceptical of the likelihood of success, saying that only a few targets could be located by average crews under moonlit conditions.

The RAF viewed Axis oil as a "vital centre",[9] and in February 1941, the British Air Staff expected that RAF Bomber Command would, by destruction of half of a list of 17 targets, reduce Axis oil production capacity by 80%.[10]

Ploiești oilfield[edit]

Although the Butt Report of August 1941 identified the poor accuracy and performance of RAF bombing,[8]: 70–71  Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris maintained at the subsequent Casablanca Conference the great importance of oil targets in Axis territory.[11] The first US bombing of a European target was of the Ploieşti refineries on 12 June 1942 and the oil campaign continued at a lower priority until 1944. Priority fell with the need for attacks on German V-weapon targets ("Operation Crossbow") in France and then the attacks on lines of communication in preparation for the invasion of France (described as the "Transportation Plan").

Columbia Aquila refinery at Ploieşti in Romania burning after the raid of B-24 Liberator bombers in Operation Tidal Wave

In March 1944 the "Plan for Completion of Combined Bomber Offensive" was put forward which found favour with the British Ministry of Economic Warfare. The plan proposed attacking "fourteen synthetic plants and thirteen refineries" of Nazi Germany.[12][13][14][15] The plan estimated Axis oil production could be reduced by 50% by bombing—33% below the amount Nazi Germany needed[16]—but also included 4 additional priorities: first oil, then fighter and ball bearing production, rubber production, and bomber output. The damage caused by the 12 and 28 May[17] trial bombings of oil targets, as well as the confirmation of the oil facilities' importance and vulnerability from Ultra intercepts and other intelligence reports, would result in the oil targets becoming the highest priority on 3 September 1944.[18]

In June 1944, in response to Air Ministry query on resources, Bomber Command staff estimated it would take 32,000 tons of bombs to destroy 10 oil targets in the Ruhr. Harris agreed to divert spare effort to oil targets. They were deemed to be of such importance that one raid was staged that consisted only of bomb carrying fighters, to rest the bomber crews and surprise the defenders.[8]: 246–247 

In late summer 1944 the Allies began using reconnaissance photo information to time bombing with the resumption of production at a facility. Even with the weather limitations: "This was the big breakthrough ... a plant would be wounded ... by successive attacks on its electrical grid—its nervous system—and on its gas and water mains." (author Donald Miller).[4]: 320  However, due to bad fall and winter weather, a "far greater tonnage" was expended on Transportation Plan targets than oil targets.[19] The benzol (oil) plant at Linz in Austria was bombed on 16 October 1944.[20]

In January 1945, the priority of oil targets was lowered.

To prevent oil supplies from Romania reaching Germany, the RAF had extended its aerial mining activities to the Danube.


Despite the RAF and Harris claims regarding the great importance of oil targets, Harris had opposed assigning the highest priority to oil targets[21] but acknowledged post-war that the campaign was "a complete success" with the qualifier: "I still do not think that it was reasonable, at that time, to expect that the [oil] campaign would succeed; what the Allied strategists did was to bet on an outsider, and it happened to win the race."[4]: 311 [22]

Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067 prohibited German post-war production of oil through July 1947, and the United States Army made post-war provisions to rehabilitate and use petroleum installations where needed, as well as to dispose of unneeded captured equipment.[23] After inspections of various plants by the "European technology mission" (Plan for Examination of Oil Industry of Axis Europe)[24] and a report in March 1946, the United States Bureau of Mines[25] employed seven Operation Paperclip synthetic fuel scientists in a Fischer–Tropsch chemical plant in Louisiana, Missouri.[26] In October 1975, Texas A&M University began the German Document Retrieval Project and completed a report on 28 April 1977. The report identified final investigations of the German plants and interrogations of German scientists by the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee, the US Field Information Agency (Technical), and the Combined Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee.[27]

Opinions on outcome[edit]

Despite its successes, by the spring of 1944 the Combined Bomber Offensive had failed to severely damage the German economy or significantly interrupt production of a vital item. The oil campaign was the first to accomplish these goals.[28] The US strategic bombing survey (USSBS) identified "catastrophic" damage.[17] Of itself, German industry was not significantly affected by attacks on oil targets as coal was its primary source of energy. And in its analysis of strategic bombing as a whole the USSBS identified the consequences of the breakdown of transportation resulting from attacks against transportation targets as "probably greater than any other single factor" in the final collapse of the German economy.[29]: 159 

Several prominent Germans, however, described the oil campaign as critical to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Adolf Galland, Inspector of Fighters of the Luftwaffe until relieved of command in January 1945, wrote in his book "the most important of the combined factors which brought about the collapse of Germany",[30] and the Luftwaffe's wartime leader, Hermann Göring, described it as "the utmost in deadliness".[16]: 287  Albert Speer, writing in his memoir, said that "It meant the end of German armaments production."[31]: 412–4  It has been stated to have been "effective immediately, and decisive within less than a year".[32] Luftwaffe Field Marshal Erhard Milch, referring to the consequences of the oil campaign, claimed that "The British left us with deep and bleeding wounds, but the Americans stabbed us in the heart."[33]


The following statistics are from the British Bombing Survey Unit. Figures are for the oil campaign in the last year of the war.[29]: 158 

Number of attacks by the RAF and USAAF against oil targets:

Eighth Air Force
Fifteenth Air Force
Bomber Command
May 1944 11 10 0
June 1944 20 32 10
July 1944 9 36 20
August 1944 33 23 20
September 1944 23 8 14
October 1944 18 10 10
November 1944 32 19 22
December 1944 7 33 15
January 1945 17 5 23
February 1945 20 20 24
March 1945 36 24 33
April 1945 7 1 9
Total 233 221 200

Short tons dropped on oil targets:

Eighth Air Force
Fifteenth Air Force
Bomber Command
May 1944 2,883 1,540 0
June 1944 3,689 5,653 4,562
July 1944 5,379 9,313 3,829
August 1944 7,116 3,997 1,856
September 1944 7,495 1,829 4,488
October 1944 4,462 2,515 4,088
November 1944 15,884 4,168 16,029
December 1944 2,937 6,226 5,772
January 1945 3,537 2,023 10,114
February 1945 1,616 4,362 15,749
March 1945 9,550 6,628 21,211
April 1945 1,949 124 5,993
Total 66,497 48,378 93,691

The efficiency of the bombing was lacking. Working from German records for certain sites, the USSBS determined that on average 87% of Allied bombs fell outside the factory perimeter and that only a few percent struck plant or equipment inside the boundary. The USAAF could put 26% of their bombing within the factories in good bombing conditions, 12% when using a mix of visual and instruments but only 5% when it had to use instrument-only bombing techniques; and 80% of their tonnage was delivered under partly or fully instrument conditions. The RAF averaged 16% inside the factory. Bomber Command's efforts against oil were more efficient in some regards – although delivering a smaller total tonnage it did so from 23 base area.[clarification needed] The USSBS believed that Bomber Command's heavy bombs – 4,000-pound (1,800 kg) Blockbuster bombs – were more effective than an equivalent weight of smaller bombs. Both RAF and USAAF dropped a large number of bombs on oil targets that failed to explode: 19% and 12% respectively.[29]: 158–159 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Donald Caldwell; Richard Muller (2007). "The Oil Campaign May–August 1944". The Luftwaffe Over Germany: Defense of the Reich. MBI Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-85367-712-0.
  2. ^ Duga, James; Stewart, Carroll (9 April 2002). Ploesti. ISBN 978-1-57488-510-1. Retrieved 26 March 2009.
  3. ^ Stout, Jay A (November 2003). Fortress Ploiesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler's Oil Supply. p. 318. Archived from the original on 22 June 2010. Retrieved 4 February 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d Miller, Donald L. (2006). Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 314. ISBN 978-0-7432-3544-0.
  5. ^ Cox, Sebastian (31 March 1998). The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939–1945. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-7146-4722-7. Retrieved 9 February 2009.
  6. ^ Western Axis Subcommittee (c. 1943). "Estimated Refinery Output in Axis Europe – 1943" (PDF). Enemy Oil Committee. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 March 2009. Retrieved 21 March 2009.
  7. ^ Video: American Bombers Smash Axis Oil Fields In Romania Etc. (1943). Universal Newsreel. 1943. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
  8. ^ a b c d Hastings, Max (2013) [1979]. Bomber Command. Michael Joseph Ltd. ISBN 978-0-330-51361-6.
  9. ^ Tedder, Arthur (1966). With Prejudice. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. p. 502.
  10. ^ "Campaign Diary". Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary. UK Crown. Archived from the original on 6 July 2007. Retrieved 22 March 2009.: May–June 1940 (Battle of France) Archived 7 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine, January–April 1941 Archived 11 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine, May–August 1941 Archived 3 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ US Secretary (January 1943). Casablanca Conference: Papers and Minutes of Meetings. Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library; Combined Chiefs of Staff: Conference proceedings, 1941–1945; Box 1: Office of the Combined Chiefs of Staff. pp. 40–43, 88, 256.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  12. ^ Williamson, Charles C.; Hughes, R. D.; Cabell, C. P.; Nazarro, J. J.; Bender, F. P.; Crigglesworth, W. J. (5 March 1944). "Plan for Completion of Combined Bomber Offensive". Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library: Smith, Walter Bedell: Collection of World War II Documents, 1941–1945; Box No.: 48: HQ, U.S.S.T.A.F. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: location (link)
  13. ^ Spaatz, Carl (5 March 1944). "[memo to Eisenhower for the] Plan for Completion of Combined Bomber Offensive". Office of the Commanding General, HQ U.S.S.T.A.F. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ Turner, Mark (6 March 1944). "letter ("Dear General Curtis")". Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square W. 1.: Ministry of Economic Warfare. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: location (link) (in same folder of Box 48)
  15. ^ Turner, Smith D. (6 March 1944). "letter ("Dear General Curtis")". American Embassy, Mission for Economic Affairs, 1 Grosvenor Square, London, W. 1.: The Foreign Service of the United States of America. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: location (link) (in same folder of Box 48)
  16. ^ a b Eisenhower, David (1991) [1986]. Eisenhower: At War 1943–1945. New York: Wings Books. pp. 184–189. ISBN 0-517-06501-0.
  17. ^ a b D'Olier, Franklin; Alexander; Ball; Bowman; Galbraith; Likert; McNamee; Nitze; Russell; Searls; Wright (30 September 1945). "The Attack on Oil". The United States Strategic Bombing Survey Summary Report (European War). Air University Press. Archived from the original on 27 July 2004. Retrieved 10 February 2009.
  18. ^ Kreis, John F.; Cochran Jr, Alexander S.; Ehrhart, Robert C.; Fabyanic, Thomas A.; Futrell, Robert F.; Williamson, Murray (1996). Piercing the Fog: Intelligence and Army Air Forces Operations in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Air Force Historical Studies Office. p. 241. ISBN 978-1-4289-1405-6. Accession Number: ADA442835. Retrieved 28 November 2008.
  19. ^ Mets, David R. (1988). Master of Airpower: General Carl A. Spaatz (paperback ed.). p. 357. ISBN 9780307538222.
  20. ^ Samuel W. Mitcham (2007). Eagles of the Third Reich. Stackpole. p. 261. ISBN 9780811734059. Retrieved 4 January 2017.
  21. ^ Thompson, H.L. (1956). "Bomber Command and the Battle of Germany". The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. p. 391. Retrieved 26 March 2009.
  22. ^ Taylor, Frederick (2005) [2004]. Dresden, Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (HarperCollins ed.). London: Bloomsbury. p. 202. ISBN 0-7475-7084-1.
  23. ^ Office of the Chief Quartermaster, U.S. Army European Theater of Operations. "Quartermaster POL Plan for Continental Operation". [document located at:] United States Army Center of Military History. Regraded UNCLASSIFIED [from SECRET] ... on 011906 {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  24. ^ "tbd" (PDF). 10 February 1945. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 August 2008. Retrieved 22 March 2009.
  25. ^ Schroeder, W. C. (August 1946). "Report on Investigations by Fuels and Lubricants Teams at the I.G. Farbenindustrie, A. G., Works, Ludwigshafen and Oppau". US Bureau of Mines, Office of Synthetic Liquid Fuels. Archived from the original on 8 November 2007. Retrieved 21 March 2009.
  26. ^ Schubert, Paul. "German Synthetic Fuels Scientists". Primary Documents – Presentations "Fischer–Tropsch Process and Product Development During World War II – 2001". Archived from the original on 24 September 2015.
  27. ^ "Department of Energy". 20 September 1977. Retrieved 6 February 2015.
  28. ^ Levine, Alan J. (1992). The Strategic Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. p. 143. ISBN 0-275-94319-4.
  29. ^ a b c Hall, R. Cargill (2005) [1998]. Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment. University Press of the Pacific. ISBN 1-4102-2480-5.
  30. ^ Galland, Adolf (1968) [1954]. The First and the Last: The Rise and Fall of the German Fighter Forces, 1938–1945. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 239.
  31. ^ Speer, Albert (1970). Inside the Third Reich. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York and Toronto: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-684-82949-4. LCCN 70119132.
  32. ^ McArthur, Charles W. (1990). Operations analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II. p. 205. ISBN 9780821801581.
  33. ^ Henderson, Horace Edward (August 2001). The Greatest Blunders of World War II: How Errors Mistakes and Blunders Determined Victory or Defeat. iUniverse. p. 213. ISBN 9780595162673.