You get into a mammoth fight with another country, and you both have to go for every advantage you can get. In some cases, that means fighting for resources that most people may not realize are all that important. While everyone knows that steel and oil can make and break campaigns, it turns out that everything from coal to fish oil to guano can be important too:
The USS Jupiter was a collier ship that carried coal for other American ships before being converted to America's first carrier, the USS Langley. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
While it's usually either loved or hated for its role in making electricity, coal was a major fuel source for military operations during the time of America's Civil War until a little past World War I. Even today, it's important for industrial processes like forming steel for tanks and ships. And in World War II, Germany exploited a 1920s discovery that allowed them to turn coal into synthetic fuel and oil.
So, that hopefully explains why the Allies and Germans launched raids against coal reserves in and around Europe, often north of the Arctic Circle. The German war machine desperately needed enough fuel to fight on multiple fronts, especially when they began losing their oil fields in North Africa and the Balkans.
British commandos, like these two in a photo from the St. Nazaire Raid, launched a daring mission to secure Antwerp's diamonds before the Germans could seize them. (Photo: Public Domain)
Like coal, diamonds are valuable during war for their use in industry. Their physical strength is needed for the manufacture of important items like radar as well as the tools for manufacturing weapons and vehicles.
So, when the Third Reich launched its massive assault through the low countries, Britain sent agents to buy, steal, and capture Dutch diamonds before the Germans could. Most concentrated on buying stockpiles and accepting bags of them from Jewish traders for safekeeping, but one officer actually broke into a massive vault and made away with the jewels just as Nazi paratroopers hit the building.
2. Bat and bird crap
Guano mines were an important source of saltpeter for munitions production. (Photo: Public Domain)
So, this one is probably the most surprising, but large deposits of bat and bird feces were actually a huge deal from soon after the invention of gunpowder through World War I. That's because the animals have diets filled with insects and their feces are often filled with saltpeter, one of the key ingredients for gunpowder.
And major countries fought for large crap deposits. Spain invaded Peru and fought an alliance that included Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador over the Chincha Islands in the 1860s. A Confederate regiment had to guard the deposits in Austin, Texas, for use in the Civil War. And one of Japan's prizes in World War II was Nauru, a crap-soaked island between Hawaii and New Zealand.
1. Fish oil
British commandos burn fish oil facilities in the Lofoten Islands in World War II. (Photo: War Office Capt. Tennyson d'Eyncourt, Imperial War Museum)
Not the stuff you get in capsules from nature made, we're talking about huge vats of fish fats. The chemicals in the fish fat included glycerine, a crucial propellant for modern weapons. And that high flammability turns fish oil fires into massive columns of black smoke.
In World War II, this turned Norway and other countries that relied on the fishing industry into targets for the two sides. The Germans captured Norwegian fishing villages but failed to fortify them well, so the British and Canadian militaries sent commandos to trash the facilities and burn them to the ground, robbing the Germans of needed supplies and forcing them to defend far-flung facilities.