Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East: Concepts, Definitions, and Parameters
From Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East
© 1997 Brookings Press
Reprinted with the Permission of the Brrokings Institute Press
World War II and Middle East Oil
Access to oil supplies was even more vital to the combatants during World War II than in World War I. By 1939 the mechanization of armies and the increasing use of airpower generated an unprecedented demand for petroleum fuels.
Most of world's oil supplies came from the United States, the Soviet Union, the Caribbean, South America, and the Middle East (see map 9). The Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) were desperately short of fuel supplies, and as a consequence German and Japanese grand strategy was greatly influenced by the need for access to secure sources. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 contained several secret clauses that concerned oil and the Middle East that were to influence strategy in the early days of the war. The Soviet Union was promised a free hand in the Persian Gulf if the West was defeated by Germany. Furthermore, Stalin's decision to supply Germany with oil from the Caucasus was a bitter blow to the Allies. At one point Britain and France contemplated bombing Soviet oil facilities in the Caucasus from French air bases in Syria.However, this would have required overflying Turkey, which was neutral.
The proposal was satirized by A. P. Herbert in a poem entitled "Baku or the Map Game," written in April 1940 :
It's jolly to look at the map
And finish the foe in a day.
It's not easy to get at the chap;
These neutrals are so in the way.
But if you say "What would you do
To fill the aggressor with gloom?"
Well, we might drop a bomb on Baku,
Or what about bombs on Batum?
However, once Hitler's armies had overun Western Europe in 1940 and hisplanned invasion of Britain had failed, he turned his attention once more to the East. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was in part an effort to gain access to the enormous resources of the Ukraine and to protect the oil supplies coming from Romania. At this point in time Germany was cut off from maritime supplies from the rest of the world by the Royal Navy and hadno trust that Stalin would continue to deliver vital resources as he had done since the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939.
German strategy in 1941-42 -- the Drang nach Osten -- was eventually to drive to Stalingrad and to move simultaneously on the Caucasus, which contained the great three oil fields at Maikop, Grozny, and Baku, as well as the pipelines (see maps 10 and 11). This move was to be paralleled by Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika eastward drive along the North African coast toward the Nile Delta, the Suez Canal, and Palestine. If Rommel had succeeded and drivenBritain out of Egypt and the northern forces had broken through the Caucasus, Germany would have been in a position seriously to threaten the remaining British forces in the Persian Gulf and gain access to Middle East oil.
The German invasion of Russia radically altered the strategic balance andled to a Soviet military agreement with Britain, including joint plans to protect the Persian Gulf. In August 1941 British and Russian units invaded Iran on the pretext of enforcing its neutrality, which was jeopardized by German fifth columnists and the generally pro-German attitude of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In reality the attack was designed to do three things: first, to protect theoil fields in Iraq and Iran; second, to secure a line of communication to protect the Gulf in case the German army broke through the Caucasus; and third, to establish a southern supply route to Russia. The Soviet government's legal pretext for invasion was the peace treaty it had signed with Iran in 1921, which permitted it to place troops temporarily on Iranian territory for the purpose ofself-defense.
With Iran secure but with the German armies threatening Allied positions in Egypt and the Caucasus, in May 1942 the commander in chief of the British Middle East Forces, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, made plans in the event of a German attack through Iran from the Caucasus. Auchinleck declared that his objective was to ensure the security of bases, ports, oil supplies, and refineries in Iraq and Iran, all of which were located in the center and south of the region, by stopping the Germans as far north as possible. His belief was that if the Germans succeeded in breaking through Iran's northern provinces it would be much more difficult to prevent them from eventually launching a two-pronged attack on the Gulf through Iran and Iraq.
This German threat to the Middle East must be seen in conjunction with the threat posed to the area by the Japanese navy. The Japanese decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor was in part triggered by the effectiveness of the U.S. oil embargo that had been imposed in the summer of 1941 and the need to secure the resources, especially oil, of the Dutch East Indies. With the defeat of the British and Dutch in Southeast Asia in 1942 the way was now clear for Japan to move on India and send its navy into the Indian Ocean toward the Middle East. During the period March 31 - April 9, 1942, a major Japanese naval force (far superior to anything the Allies had in the area), consisting of five fleet carriers, four fast battleships, three cruisers, and eight destroyers commanded by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, raided the Bay of Bengal and theeast coast of India. If the Japanese had decided to continue their advance into the Indian Ocean there would have been nothing to stop them, and they could have seriously disrupted the vital Allied sea lines of communication (SLOCs).
By the end of 1942 the Axis threat to the Middle East was over. Rommel's army in North Africa was defeated, the Soviet victory at Stalingrad had turned the tide of the war in the East, and any German threat to the Caucasus and Japan's plan for an invasion of India had been forestalled. For the rest of the war Allied oil supplies were never seriously threatened. In contrast, the Allied bombing campaign against Germany's oil facilities, including the syntheticplants in Germany and the Romanian fields at Ploesti, posed increasing constraints on German mobility and contributed significantly to the eventual Allied victory. Furthermore, with the Middle East secure, the Allies were able to supply the Soviet Union with vital war equipment provided under lend-lease.
The history of American military aid to Russia during World War II highlights the importance of Middle East geography and the search for strategic access. Following the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, there was optimism in the West that the Germans would become bogged down in an eastern campaign but also fear that the Russian army would collapse, leaving the enormous resources of the Soviet Union at Hitler's disposal. The British understood that support for Russia was essential to their own war effort and, although Franklin Roosevelt -- who at that time was president of a technically nonbelligerent country -- was under pressure not to help Russia (especially by the expressed doubts of his military advisers), the United States brought the Soviet Union quickly into the Lend-Lease Program.
The problems involved in supplying the Soviet Union -- aside from the difficulty of getting straight answers from Soviet officials as to their requirements and needs -- were logistic. To understand their magnitude, it is well to recall the geography of the Soviet Union and the various lines of supply between the Allies and the Russian armed forces in late 1941 and 1942. The heaviest fighting was taking place in European Russia and the threat at that time was to its north, center, and south. The German offensive in Europe had effectively sealed off the Baltic route and the Mediterranean routes to the Black Sea. That left three supply lines that were, in theory, open: the Arctic route to Murmansk and Archangel, the Atlantic and Indian Ocean route to the Soviet Union via Persia, and the Far East route via Vladivostok.
Each of the three routes posed different problems. The Arctic route was the quickest and most direct, and the Soviet ports and logistical facilities were the best equipped for rapid dispersal of materiel, but the German occupation of Norway presented an enormous hazard. This threat, added to the horrendous weather conditions, made the Arctic convoy routes extremely perilous and they had to be suspended intermittently. The Pacific route by Vladivostok had both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the Soviet Union and the Japanese Empire had signed a nonaggression pact and were not belligerents for most of the war. Thus steamships flying Soviet flags plied across the Pacific carrying war goods made in the United States, and for a time this source of supply was greater than the combined total of the more famous Persian route and Murmansk run. On the minus side, first, as Russian-Japanese relations deteriorated the ships were vulnerable to Japanese interdiction from bases in China; second, Vladivostok was thousands of miles from the main battlefronts and the Trans-Siberian railway, apart from the fact that it was a tortuous route, was not equipped to carry the quantities of materiel that the Russian forces needed.
The growing difficulties of the Vladivostok run led to increasing interest in the Persian Gulf route since Britain and Russia had jointly occupied Persia in August 1941. Here the problems were the inadequacies of the facilities, as the ports and railroads did not have the capacity to handle the tonnage. However, once materiel had arrived in the Caspian, it could quickly be dispersed to the Soviet forces. The difficulties were eventually resolved when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over management of the Persian corridor; that is to say they became responsible for the running of the ports and the railway, but the British retained overall strategic control of the theater. On a day-to-day basis the U.S. Army ran the lend-lease operation but Britain retained the option of dictating priorities in terms of where materiel went and when. Great quantities of equipment were shipped through the Persian corridor throughout the war.