I have heard historians claim that enemies' ball bearing factory locations were a coveted piece of intelligence. I have also heard that big money industry for both the allies and axis super powers colluded to NOT bomb each others' ball bearing factories because it would "end the war too soon". These are some narrative fragments that have always left me curious about the significance of ball bearings to industry and particularly war industry. Were they a high-leverage pinch-point in the type of supply chain necessary to build a modern military?
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It was a vital item for just about anything mechanical. All engines and most weapons/weapon system need ball bearings. You need ball bearings to rotate a turret, no matter if this is an aircraft turret or a tank turret. Likewise, the German MG 34 and MG 42 machineguns relied heavily on ball bearings. Cars, trucks, anything that (mechanically) moves, including bicycles, need ball bearings. Torpedoes, ships, airplanes, most artillery, many bombs and artillery ammunition - all need ball bearings.
Without ball bearings those machines and weapons will fail to work. Ball bearings are not so easy to manufacture. They must be of exactly the right size. A tiny deviation in size of a few bearings (a fraction of a millimeter too large or too small) can bring the machine to a standstill. Literally. That's why the allies put so much effort into destroying ball bearing factories.
Theoretically some weapons or machines can function without ball bearings, but not a lot. And they will need lots and lots of lubricants to make up for the lack of ball bearings. Something the Germans didn't have much of.
I have also heard that big money industry for both the allies and axis super powers colluded to NOT bomb each others' ball bearing factories because it would "end the war too soon".
That's something you have to give some sources for. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, after all. Given the fact that the Schweinfurt raids were done several times, I don't think this is likely to be true. The loss of life was horrendous in both raids.
Ball bearings were a key component in most of the items that enabled motorised and mechanised warfare. Ensuring your own side's supply and limiting that of you enemy were therefore a key consideration in military and political strategy.
Ball and roller bearings are speciality engineering products which use balls to reduce rotational friction and support loads by separating moving axles. During a war, they are particularly useful in airplane motors, tanks, automobiles, guns, submarine engines and similar war materiel. During the Second World War, ball bearings and the machinery for producing them were among the most sought‐after and disputed products.
One example of action to interrupt the enemy's supply of ball bearings was the Allied bombings of the Schweinfurt factories that produced almost half of Germany's bearings.
Allied pre‐emptive attempts to end this Swedish‐German trade were only partially successful, given the nature of the supply chain in question. By late 1943, the Allies were treating ball bearings as one of the “choke points” in Germany’s war economy.
The Americans and British collaborated to limit both German domestic production and Swedish imports. Germany produced less because of Allied bombings in August and October 1943, which damaged VKF’s factories in Schweinfurt.
Did Swedish Ball Bearings Keep the Second World War Going? Re‐evaluating Neutral Sweden’s Role, E.B.Golson (2011), pg.6
Question Part 1: What was the significance of ball bearing factories during the World Wars and in the economy at the time in general??
Ball bearing were a vital foundational component of an industrial economy. Crippling Germany's ball bering supply was a key American War strategy in WWII ever since American intelligence identified a shortage of ball bearings within Germany in 1942. America's plan was to bomb key ball bering factories which accounted for a large percentage of German ball bering production to exasperate the perceived German shortage.
Second Raid on Schweinfurt
Factories in and around Schweinfurt accounted for a significant amount of German ball-bearing production. The Kugelfischer plant produced 22 percent, and the Vereinigte Kugellagerfabriken I and II produced 20 percent, and another one percent came from the Fichtel & Sachs factory.
After the German ball bearing "bottleneck" had been identified in 1942 and ball bearings had been named the second-most-vital Pointblank industry for the Combined Bomber Offensive in March 1943, Schweinfurt's ball bearing plants were selected for a second air raid after being bombed during the August Schweinfurt–Regensburg mission.
To get a feel for the perceived importance of ball bearings as a target, we can review losses in two missions who's primary objective was ball bering.
The first Schweinfurt raid, August 17, 1943:
Mission No. 84 was a strike by 376 bombers of sixteen bomb groups against German heavy industry well beyond the range of escorting fighters. The mission inflicted heavy damage on the Regensburg target, but at catastrophic loss to the force, with 60 bombers lost and many more damaged beyond economical repair. As a result, the Eighth Air Force was unable to follow up immediately with a second attack that might have seriously crippled German industry. When Schweinfurt was finally attacked again two months later, the lack of long-range fighter escort had still not been addressed and losses were even higher. As a consequence, deep penetration strategic bombing was curtailed for five months.
Second Raid on Schweinfurt, October 14, 1943
Of the 291 B-17 Flying Fortresses sent on the mission, 60 were lost outright, another 17 damaged so heavily that they had to be scrapped, and another 121 had varying degrees of battle damage. Outright losses represented over 26% of the attacking force. Losses in aircrew were equally heavy, with 650 men lost of 2,900, 22% of the bomber crews. The American Official History of the Army Air Forces in the Second World War acknowledged losses had been so heavy that the USAAF would not return to the target for four months; "The fact was that the Eighth Air Force had for the time being lost air superiority over Germany"
Question Part 2:
I have heard historians claim that enemies' ball bearing factory locations were a coveted piece of intelligence. I have also heard that big money industry for both the allies and axis super powers colluded to NOT bomb each others' ball bearing factories because it would "end the war too soon".
I think their are several reasons one could come away with such a mistaken belief.
(1) Key Ball Bearing Plants such as those around Schweinfurt were deep inside Germany. As demonstrated and documented with the above quotes missions which hit these targets prior to the development of long range fighter escorts were so costly they caused months of delays between raids as America had to rebuild it's bomber forces. After the second raid on Schweinfurt, America suspended daylight unescorted bombing of Germany for five months.
Second Raid on Schweinfurt unescorted daylight bomber raids deep into Germany were suspended until the February 1944 Big Week missions with P-51B Mustang escorts that included additional Schweinfurt day/night USAAF/RAF bombing on the 24th.
(2) There was a disagreement among the allies. While the United States identified a production battle neck and made it a key and costly aim of their bombing efforts. The British did not contribute to this effort.
Second Raid on Schweinfurt
The intelligence of the Allied Air Forces were also flawed. Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding RAF Bomber Command questioned the intelligence that claimed ball bearings to be the critical node in the German war economy. Harris refused to cooperate with the Americans, believing ball bearing targets to be a false "panacea". Post-war analysis has shown Harris's objections to be correct.
Question Part 3:
Were (ball bearings) a high-leverage pinch-point in the type of supply chain necessary to build a modern military?
Ball bearings were not the bottle neck which American Intelligence reported. Germany had huge supplies of ball bearings and were able to import them from other European countries, including neutral countries like Switzerland, and Sweden. Despite America making ball bearing production facilities a key target in 1943 and 44, despite many costly missions to destroy those production facilities, the United States never seriously compromised Germans ball bearing supply.
The Germans had built up enormous reserves of ball bearings and were receiving supplies from all over Europe, particularly Italy, Sweden and Switzerland. The operation against these industries would, even if successful, have achieved little. By 1945 the Germans had assembled more reserves than ever before