As long as they could successfully conduct short and decisive campaigns and avoid protracted conflicts, the Axis powers could compensate for most logistical shortfalls they encountered. But when forced to conduct a lengthy war of attrition against the economic giants—the United States and the Soviet Union—the Axis powers discovered that their logistical shortcomings continually limited their military options, which led directly to their eventual defeat.
Germany began the war with an economy mobilized unlike any other in Europe. Fortunately for the Allies, however, Germany had neither the centrally planned and centrally commanded economy of the Soviet Union or the free enterprise, capitalist-driven economy of the Western Allies. In the end, the German economy, along with those of Italy and Japan, suffered from poor management, which resulted in inefficient production and the misuse of valuable resources. For example, whereas the Allies standardized weapons in order to speed up mass production, the German Luftwaffe at one point was producing 425 different aircraft models and variants. Such diversity made it difficult to mass-produce war materials.
Germany began the war with serious shortages of strategic resources. It imported oil, iron ore, copper, tin, nickel, bauxite, manganese, tungsten, chromium, molybdenum, sulphur and pyrites, phosphates, rubber, rice, maize, wheat, and meat. Some of the shortages could be made up by prioritizing the use of resources and by acquiring new supplies through conquest. The vital resource most in short supply in Europe was oil. Germany produced only .2 percent of the world's oil in 1937. Romania, its chief supplier of oil, produced just 2.4 percent. The Allies, by contrast, had access to nearly all the world's oil production; the Soviet Union had 10.6 percent, the United States 60.4 percent, and Latin America 15.3 percent. Germany had experimented with synthetic fuel production in the interwar years and had had some success, but without imports of oil from Romania throughout the war and from the Soviet Union prior to the German invasion of that country in 1941, the German war machine would have ground to a halt. Germany's Axis allies were in even worse shape with regard to oil. The Axis powers were desperately short of oil throughout the war, which severely limited their mobility, the training of their armed forces, and the overall production of war materials.
Logistical support for the German military improved greatly with the appointment of Albert Speer as the minister of armaments in 1942. He led an effort to centralize the German economy, reduce the number of weapon types, and maximize production. Weapons production trebled in three years. However, just when the efforts to centralize production in large assembly plants began to result in increased output, the Allied bombing campaign began in earnest, and the large production facilities were bombed repeatedly by Allied aircraft.
Speer's efforts to boost production could have been even more successful had Adolf Hitler approved the large-scale use of German women in the war economy. Unlike the situation in the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, only a small percentage of German women were engaged in manufacturing work at the beginning of the war. And instead of mobilizing women for the factories, Germany relied on the use of millions of slave laborers to meet the ever increasing demand for workers. Speer's efforts most certainly prolonged the war, but they came too late to bring Germany victory.
The lack of resources affected German strategy during the war. Supplies of iron ore from Sweden were secure when the Baltic Sea was open, but during the winter, the ore had to be shipped through Narvik in Norway. Keeping the supply route through Narvik open was a prominent factor in the German decision to invade Norway in April 1940. Similarly, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which ultimately proved to be a logistical disaster, was partially prompted by logistical reasons. The wealth of resources there, both agricultural and mineral, would have gone a long way toward making Germany self-reliant in most areas. Hitler's decision to turn the armored forces south to envelop Kiev in August 1941 not only resulted in the surrender of a large Soviet force but also secured the Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. The German 1942 campaign that culminated at Stalingrad was the result of Hitler's attempt to capture the Caucasus oil fields. In 1944, the German army used all available resources in its attempt to keep the Red Army from seizing the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. The loss of Romanian oil, along with the Allied bombing of the German synthetic fuel plants, helped bring about the ultimate defeat of Germany in many ways; for example, it sharply reduced training time for pilots.
Once materials were produced, the sinews of war had to reach the armed forces at the front. Despite the popular image of panzer divisions slicing their way across Europe, the German army was basically a force of foot soldiers supported by horses, wagons, and railroads. Throughout the war, 80 to 85 percent of the army moved on foot and received supplies by wagon from the nearest railhead, and Germany actually used more horses in World War II than it did in World War I. Indeed, the German logistical system for supplying the armed forces had advanced little since World War I, save for the use of trucks by some units. To motorize only 15 percent of its forces, Germany confiscated trucks from the occupied countries whenever possible. As a result, the German military eventually had 151 different types of trucks in service, and it proved virtually impossible to get the right spare parts to the right trucks expeditiously. The Americans, by contrast, had one primary truck—the rugged 2.5-ton "deuce-and-a-half," of which over 2 million were produced.
The most important element of the German supply system was the railroad. When the Luftwaffe had air superiority early in the war, the railroads were secure. But by 1943, the Allies were gaining control of the air, and the resulting fighter-bomber and bomber strikes on the German transportation system began crippling the German logistical effort. By the end of the war, German production, even though maximized by Speer's reforms, was rendered nearly useless when the materials that were produced could not be transported to the front for use by the troops.
The Italian logistical situation was even worse. Italy entered the war unable to support its armed forces in a long conflict. In fact, the nation lacked all the vital resources necessary to fight a major war, regardless of duration. Oil was in short supply, as were most strategic metals. Benito Mussolini's drive for empire—the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, as well as the invasions of France, Greece, and Egypt in 1940—failed to improve Italy's logistical situation. These campaigns actually did more harm than good because they taxed Italy's limited resources, and the resulting supply lines to its far-flung empire were virtually insupportable. Long and tenuous supply lines to Italian forces in Ethiopia, for example, could not be sustained, and the Italians there fell victim to a British offensive in 1941. Support of Italian forces in Libya required control of the central Mediterranean Sea. Yet by late 1942, the Allies, operating from Malta and bases at Gibraltar and Alexandria, had gained effective control of the Mediterranean Sea.
Italy had too little fuel to produce additional war materials or even to support the tanks and aircraft that it already possessed. The navy lacked the fuel to sortie, so it remained largely in port. The army, as with the German military, was dependent on horses, mules, and wagons, as well as the railroads and a few trucks.
Japan, an island nation, suffered from the same logistical problems. It lacked resources and had to import nearly all its strategic materials in merchant ships. The quest for resources was an important factor in the Japanese moves into Korea in 1904, into Manchuria in 1931, and into China in 1937. The main goal of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere was the economic independence of Japan. When the United States embargoed scrap metal and then oil following Japan's move into French Indochina between 1940 and 1941, Japan found itself in the awkward situation of having to back down and withdraw from the occupied territory or go to war to solidify its hold on the needed resources. The attack on Pearl Harbor covered the Japanese drive to seize Southeast Asia in order to acquire the oil fields of the Netherlands East Indies and the rubber and tin of Malaya, as well as other strategic resources.
Unfortunately for Japan, the country did not have enough time to develop its newly acquired resources, nor did it have the sealift capacity to transport the materials that were produced. In December 1941, Japan had only 49 tankers totaling 587,000 tons. By contrast, Britain, which was also dependent on foreign oil, had 425 tankers of 2,997,000 tons in 1939, and the United States had 389 tankers of 2,836,000 tons.
The marginal Japanese sealift was steadily reduced during the course of the war by U.S. submarines and airpower. By late 1944 and into 1945, Japan was almost completely cut off from imports, and the overall lack of petroleum products crippled the Japanese war effort even more severely than was the case for Germany. Aerial mining by B-29s also disrupted or destroyed much of the Japanese coastal trade.
Growing Allied air superiority, increasing shortages of merchant ships, the failure to convoy (there were scarcely any escorts available) or implement an effective antisubmarine effort until late in the war, limited resources within Japan itself, and the U.S. strategic-bombing campaign against Japan all but doomed the Japanese supply system to failure. By the last years of the war, bypassed Japanese forces in the Pacific were starving for lack of logistical support. All that the Japanese could do was convert some of their submarines to transports and deliver small quantities of supplies to isolated garrisons. Such stopgap measures did little but briefly prolong the war.
For the Axis powers, logistical factors were always a major concern. German mechanized warfare was ultimately limited by the lack of motor transport available to the German military. But even if Germany had been able to produce more vehicles, the limited availability of fuel would have sharply restricted their use. By 1944, when German single-engine fighter production peaked, the lack of high-octane aviation fuel so limited training that the pilots quickly fell victim to the better-trained and more experienced Allied pilots. The Italians also suffered from a lack of oil from the beginning of the war, and their inability to transport gasoline and replacement weapons and personnel across the Mediterranean in sufficient numbers proved a major factor in the Axis defeat in North Africa. Japan's inability to protect its merchant fleet and ensure delivery of fuel and other resources from Southeast Asia ultimately destroyed the Japanese economy in 1945 and left the nation on a starvation diet. Axis victories on the battlefield became fewer and farther between as the logistical situation of the Axis powers deteriorated during the course of the war.
Steve R. Waddell
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