swedish iron

Swedish iron ore during World War II

Swedish iron ore was an important economic factor in the European Theater of World War II. Both the Allies and the Third Reich were keen on the control of the mining district in northernmost Sweden, surrounding the mining towns of Gällivare and Kiruna. The importance of this issue increased after other sources were cut off from Germany by the British sea blockade during the Second Battle of the Atlantic. Both the planned Anglo-French support of Finland in the Winter War, and the following German occupation of Denmark and Norway (Operation Weserübung) were to large extent motivated by the wish to deny their respective enemies iron critical for wartime production of steel.


The Anglo-German Naval Agreement (AGNA) of 1935, concluded between Britain and Germany, seriously challenged the independence of Sweden and its long-standing policy of peaceful neutrality. Signed on June 18, the agreement was "the most startling event of 1935". Despite provisions in the Treaty of Versailles, the AGNA allowed Germany to increase the size of its Kriegsmarine to one-third the size of the Royal Navy. At the same time, Britain agreed to withdraw its navy from the Baltic Sea completely, making Germany the dominant power in the Baltic, making itself a potential threat to Sweden and the other Baltic countries during a time of war as well as in peacetime.

The Anglo-German Naval Agreement made it easier for the Kriegsmarine to control a major portion of the sea traffic traveling in and out of the Baltic, including sea traffic traveling through the Gulf of Bothnia. The majority of Germany's iron-ore imports originated from the Gulf of Bothnia and the Swedish port of Luleå. However, Luleå froze over during the winter, so the Norwegian port of Narvik was a vital port of shipping during the winter. An alternate ice-free winter port was available at Oxelösund, south of Stockholm, for the iron ore from the mines in Bergslagen.

With 50 percent of Germany's iron-ore imports coming from Sweden, iron-ore was of major importance to Germany, especially for the German military's attempts at rebuilding its war arsenal. Grand Admiral Raeder, head of the German navy, said himself that it would be "utterly impossible to make war should the navy not be able to secure the supplies of iron-ore from Sweden". By controlling the Baltic, as Gunnar Hägglöf has stated, "All the iron-ore needed by Germany could be shipped from the harbours of the Baltic".

Prior to the Second World War, Germany was able to supply itself with only a quarter of its total iron-ore consumption per year, with the rest being imported from other countries. Sweden provided up to almost 60 percent of the iron-ore that was imported into Germany. In 1940, iron-ore imports from Sweden, as well as Norway, constituted 11,550,000 of the 15,000,000 tons Germany consumed that year.

Germany's expanded power, as granted through the AGNA, posed a serious threat to the independence of nations that bordered on the Baltic, particularly Sweden and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It forced some of those nations to seriously reconsider their traditional policies up to that point, with Sweden being no exception.

British attempts to disrupt German-Swedish trade

Interdiction of the German-Swedish iron ore trade was a prime military objective of the British during the early months of World War II. Winston Churchill, during his tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty from September, 1939 - May, 1940, devoted considerable energy to this task; he pushed two initiatives.

The first was to send a British fleet into the Baltic Sea to stop shipping reaching Germany from the two Swedish iron ore ports, Luleå and Oxelösund. The project was called Project Catherine and was planned by Admiral of the Fleet William Boyle, 12th Earl of Cork. However, events overtook this project and it was canceled.

The second project, Operation Wilfred was the mining going on near the Norwegian Leads, the inland waterway along the coast of Norway used by ships transporting Swedish iron ore to Germany during winter months. This project was launched at the same time with the German invasion of Norway and it was quickly canceled.

Military factors

Sweden was able to remain neutral throughout the war. According to Erik Boheman, the Swedish secretary of state during the war, the main reasons were luck and the development of the war, in combination with the Swedish peoples spirit to resist an invasion, and perhaps also some diplomatic skillfulness .

Sweden supplied 10 million tons of iron ore per year to Germany from 1940-1943, as much as in the pre-war year 1938, in addition to vast numbers of manufactured ball bearings. In compensation Germany exported coal, fertilizer, and iron at affordable prices. The Swedish trade with Germany was terminated in the autumn 1944, without any Swedish deficit.

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