maandag 5 maart 2018

When it went darker than in a mine shaft

In the years 1939-1945 the world went through a dark period. Also today’s Chemelot suffered from the Second World War.

Bombed houses in Geleen, October 6, 1942

The first war years
When World War II broke out, twelve mines were operating in South Limburg: four large state mines, including the Maurits, and eight much smaller, privately operated mines. Together, they employed 32,000 workers. In the course of the war, output per worker decreased by over one fourth, while sickness absence rose from 8.5% in 1938 to 25.4% in August 1944. This was partly compensated by an increase in the workforce to 42,000 in 1943.

By the end of 1941, mandatory Sunday work was introduced to be able to meet the excessive German export demands. Though lured with extra remunerations, the miners initially refused to cooperate but they gave in when four hundred uncooperative workers were sent to the coal mines in the Ruhr area – to set an example.

In 1941, one quarter of the South Limburg production was exported to Germany. This resulted in a coal crisis, which was exacerbated by the extremely cold winter of 1941-’42. Coal was allotted mainly to gas, water and power companies, which meant that the civilian population was left in the cold for a large part of that winter.

It was not only the coal supply that suffered under the occupation: production of nitrogen fertilizers by the DSM Fertilizer Works decreased by more than 50%. From year to year the agricultural lands became more and more exhausted.

The bombardment
In the night of 5 to 6 October 1942, British bombers dropped their bombs on the Maurits State Mine and its surroundings. The mine took some hits and had to be shut down for a week, after which it took another seven months for the normal production level to be reached again. Most bombs, however, fell on Geleen, resulting in almost a hundred casualties and almost 3000 people losing their homes. The bombardment proved to be a mistake: the bombs were actually meant for targets in Germany.

Excavator in a fertilizer warehouse
DSM Fertilizer Works

The refusal
In August 1944, the German chemical industry faced a shortage of ammonia for the production of bombs and grenades. The German occupying force demanded that the DSM Fertilizer Works would immediately start producing only ammonia. The State Mines management refused to cooperate. Directors, engineers and technicians had to go underground, together with their families. On 1 September 1944, the big gas holder of the Maurits cokes plant was shot in flames by the RAF, after which ammonia production had to be stopped.

The liberation (September 1944)
Just before Geleen was liberated on 18 September 1944, the Germans stole away the coal inventories, the platinum catalysts and other materials from the nitric acid plant.

The Germans had not had time enough to flood the mines, so that coal production could rapidly be resumed. For various reasons, however, this did no go very smoothly. The miners were physically exhausted, and there were material shortages of, for instance, food, mining wood, clothes, shoes and mine lamps. In addition, there was a great deal of labor unrest. The miners were disgruntled when the management proved to be lenient for the supervisory personnel that had incurred the workers’ hatred before or during the occupation because of their ‘prodding and pushing system’ and their ‘Feldwebel cursing and snarling methods’. There was also much anger that, while the lower ranks were purged, no measures were taken at management level.
Many miners sought other jobs and one month after the liberation only 15,000 miners worked in the mines. Due to the lack of transport means the mines still built up large coal inventories while people in the neighboring province of North Brabant suffered cold in the first few months after the liberation.

Since all transport lines between the north of the Netherlands and the mines in South Limburg had been cut off, major shortages of domestic fuel developed in the winter of 1944-’45. The hunger winter can therefore rightly be called a ‘winter of cold’, too.

The information in this blog post is taken from Lou de Jong’s historical work “The Kingdom of The Netherlands in the Second World War” (“Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog”) (1969-1988), available online (in Dutch) via
Visit to search for photos from the wartime.
Read also “How it started underground” and “The first transition: from coal to chemicals”.
This is a repost of my (Dutch) September 25, 2017 post.
Read my May 20, 2013 blog post about the reason why of my English reposts.

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