A Krupp factory 1915Germany produced only a fraction of the resources needed for the complex manufacture of her munitions industry, dominated as it was by the Krupp company. Nickel, manganese, aluminium, copper, wool and flax, and all of its requirements in rubber, oil, saltpetre and jute had to be sourced from abroad and imported at considerable cost. A survey by the German navy in 1913 confirmed that on average, munitions companies held only sufficient resources for three months production, though some might have lasted longer. Their calculations indicated that, due to the lack of raw materials, the production of the weapons of war in Germany would slump after that point. But no such collapse took place. According to Professor Sir Hew Strachan, ‘Germany’s most significant import for military purposes, iron ore, seemed relatively impervious to maritime intervention’ [1] ‘Seemed relatively impervious’? What a meaningless phrase. Was there some mystery? None at all. The undisputed fact is that for at least the first two years of the war, Germany was allowed to import the raw materials for her war industries despite Britain’s overwhelming ability to stop it. The Oxford historian and British government favourite refuses to acknowledge this.

The reader may recall previous blogs on the non-defence of Briey (12 November-3 December 2014) which explained how, throughout the war, the French gifted Germany much of her vital iron ore from the Briey basin on the Franco-German border. She also obtained vast quantities of ore from Sweden, supplies which the Allies were perfectly capable of stopping. High quality ore was one of Sweden’s natural resources and the top grade steel it produced was used in ship-building, and in particular, U-boats. Germany’s iron imports increased immediately war broke out, and Montagu Consett, the British Naval Attache in Scandinavia, warned the Admiralty that this must be stopped. What outraged him most was that ‘the haulage of ore from the mines to the the coast was carried out to a large extent by the Swedish railways with British coal; its further transport by steamer across the Baltic was also (certainly for the first two years) effected by British coal.’ [2]

Ships of the Danish East Asiatic Line

Much of the Swedish ore was carried to Germany by Danish ships which served effectively as a replacement for the German merchant fleet stranded in ports on both sides of the Atlantic. Such loyal service came with an added bonus. Not a single vessel belonging to the Danish owned East Asiatic line was sunk by German submarines during the war, and the company was able to pay a 30% dividend to its shareholders in 1916. [3] Fired by British coal they shipped between four and five million tons of Swedish ore into Germany per year. Consett stated bluntly, ‘Nothing would have hastened the end of the war more effectively than the sinking of ships trading in ore between Sweden and Germany, or by economic pressure brought to bear on the Swedish ore industry. [4] As we have previously explained, a British ban on coal exports would also have had a major impact.

Sweden sent other valuable ores and metals across the Baltic to Germany including copper, which was required for every phase of naval and military warfare. Although there was no indigenous production of copper in Sweden, she increased her imports on the outbreak of war then re-exported to Germany more than three times the amount she had formerly purchased from abroad. The authorities in London were aware of this, but rather than banning British exports of copper to Sweden, they permitted them to be doubled from 517 tons in 1913 to 1,085 tons in 1915. Throughout that same period, Sweden’s exports of copper to Germany increased well beyond her normal peacetime levels. [5] Two years into the war, supplies of these commodities were still pouring from the Baltic into Germany. [6] Two years of desperate struggle on the western front against the explosive power of German howitzers was literally sustained on the back of these unchallenged imports to Scandinavia. Copper was carried into Britain from America and elsewhere across the world in British ships burning British coal. Considerable quantities of it were then exported to Sweden in British ships using British coal. Much of that copper was then sent on to Germany in ships which were, once again, powered by British coal. Quite apart from the drain on Britain’s coal supplies, scarce British merchant ships and the valuable time of their crews were being used to assist the German war effort. It defies belief.

The British government argued that it dared not halt exports to Sweden lest the Swedes retaliate by banning exports of her own products essential to Britain and the war effort. This was but one more sham excuse that collapsed under investigation. A shortage of materials like pit-props or paper could be sourced either from home or the Empire. Sweden offered nothing that could not be found elsewhere by the Allies. Britain was not dependant on Sweden. Quite the reverse. Sweden was dependent on Britain and neutral nations for a wide range of imports including coal, cereals, lubricants, petroleum, fodder and fertilisers. [7] Had it wanted to, the British government could have exerted tremendous pressure on Sweden to stop all exports to Germany, but took no definitive action until very late in the war. If Sweden had appealed to the international courts about her loss of trade, it would have been perfectly feasible for Britain and her allies to allay such fears and purchase everything that was bound for Germany. It was not to be.

Sweden also exported zinc, steel and other essential metals to Germany, in addition to wire, machinery, timber and large quantities of food. As if that was not sufficient, Britain sent Sweden more than twice her pre-war imports of the most valuable of all ingredients for strengthened steel, nickel. In 1915, of Sweden’s total imports of 504 tons of nickel, 65 per cent came from Britain and her Empire. Of this, 70 tons were sent directly to Germany. The remainder was used in Sweden to manufacture war materials for Germany. The furious British naval attache reported that ‘We sent Sweden twelve times the amount of nickel in 1915 that we did in 1913’, [8] and all of it to the benefit of the enemy.

Nickel Production at Kristiansund

There was a further scandal that the government tried desperately to keep from public knowledge. Crucial supplies of nickel were regularly exported to Germany from Norway. Nickel is a very hard metal essential for the manufacture of strengthened steel for guns, ships and armaments of various type. A small amount of nickel, 2% to 4%, was all that was required to harden the metals, so the ore itself was very valuable, and few countries had good natural supplies. [9] Most known deposits of nickel were already in Allied hands through the Mond Nickel Company in Canada and the great deposits in the French Dependency of New Caledonia in the Pacific. Germany’s stock of nickel in 1914 was meagre. She had sufficient only for a short war and, apart from the nickel supplied by Britain through Sweden, Germany had to rely on Norway as her sole supplier. There was only one factory in Norway capable of producing the amount Germany needed, the Kristiansand Nikkel Raffineringswerk, known as the K.N.R, which smelted about 60 tons of nickel per month, almost all of which went to Germany.

The British government agreed a contract with K.N.R by which they paid the company £1 million to limit their export of nickel to Germany to 80 tons per month. [10] While the tactic of trying to restrict German imports of nickel was understandable, the deal itself caused yet another damaging allegation. It was fraudulent. The agreed 80 ton limit was greater than the company’s total output, so Germany continued to import her full quota, and Britain received no benefit from the deal. Basically, K.N.R was handed £1 million for a contract that did not interfere in any way with its exports to Germany. [11] Consett angrily claimed that by applying appropriate pressure, Britain ‘could have prevented the export of the larger part of the nickel to Germany, or could have stopped the production of the nickel itself.’ His official and repeated representations to the Admiralty to have the nickel traffic stopped were to no avail. [12]

U Boat Sinks Merchant ShipIf the British government was unwilling to take action, others, closer to hand, were. Norwegian ships had been sunk by German U-boats using torpedoes made from steel hardened with Norwegian nickel, and there was a deep and bitter feeling of enmity towards Germany. Norwegian patriots took matters into their own hands and blew up the works in May 1917. [13] Though hardly worth a mention in the British press, this act of defiance was a serious blow to the German shell production and a major rebuilding programme was quickly underway. Then the K.N.R scandal deepened. Newspaper articles in Canada revealed a connection between the British Government, the British American Nickel Corporation and K.N.R. The accusation was that, though nominally Norwegian, K.N.R was in fact controlled by a German company in Frankfurt. [14] The claims were entirely justified. But it went much deeper than was realised. The murky world of international armaments and munitions reeked of scandal and collusions which linked compliant governments with powerful agencies and cartels often referred to as the merchants of death. When we turn our spotlight onto this dark history in the months to come, we will return to the corrupt nickel story with a vengeance.

It is absolutely unquestionable that the quantity of essential war materials that were exported from Britain, her Empire and elsewhere, through Scandinavia was vast, almost unmeasureable. There is no conclusion to be drawn other than the horrifying realisation that millions were needlessly sacrificed and the war knowingly prolonged.

[1] Hew Strachan, The First World War vol. 1, pp. 1018-9.
[2] M W W P Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces (1914-1918), p. 80.
[3] George Seldes, Iron, Blood and Profits, p. 89.
[4] Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, p. 80.
[5] Ibid., pp. 190-93.
[6] Ibid., p. 141.
[7] Ibid., pp. 84–85.
[8] Ibid., p. 201.
[9] Ibid., p. 198.
[10] Seventh Report from the Select Committee on National Expenditure, 21. December, 1920.
[11] Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, pp. 197-199.
[12] Ibid., p. 199.
[13] Ibid.
[14] The Times, 24 January, 1918, p. 8.