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  • Lord Copper

When Tungsten Won Wars

The stories of the Second World War were all about the big battles, the headline events of the clashes of men and materials; the Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, El Alamein, the Battle of the Atlantic. We all knew about Spitfires, about Tiger Tanks, about the Bismarck. Pretty obvious, really; those were the big events and the ones that Hollywood (or film-makers generally) and novelists could turn into a good story. As time has passed, though, what was going on behind the headlines is coming more and more into focus, with the result that we are learning – discovering, really – some of the stories that have up until recently been shrouded in the mists of confusion. The biggest one, I guess, has been the revelation over the last few years of just how influential the Bletchley Park codebreakers were in securing the Allied victory. It’s amazing how the people involved had kept kept their mouths completely closed for so long.

Anyway, I always find it fascinating when I come across a story that knits metals – their mining or trading – with such huge, world-changing events. So I was entranced recently by a book by Robert Wilson entitled ‘A Small Death in Lisbon’, focussing on what sounds like a real backwater to the major events.


Portugal during the Second World War was a hotbed of intrigue and espionage; mainly, I guess, that was down to its confused loyalties. On the one hand, the treaty between Portugal and Great Britain is generally considered to be the oldest alliance in the world, dating from some time in the 1380s. In the 1940s, there were still strong links and friendships between the two countries. At the same time, though, Portugal was ruled by a dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, whose Estado Novo was a corporatist, monolithic system admired by Franco and Mussolini. Salazar had supported Franco’s Falangists during the Spanish Civil War, and had signed an agreement with Franco in 1939. He chose, however, not to break the Anglo-Portuguese treaty and declared Portugal neutral in the War. 

However, the main reason why Salazar – who had been an academic economist – was in power was the result of the Portuguese banknote scam perpetrated by Alves Reis, which had ensured Portugal went into the Depression years with a very weak economy, which had had no chance to recover by the outbreak of the War. Thus, although neutral, Portugal needed somehow to grab some income. Salazar’s policy for that was to try and play both ends against the middle, at least while the result of the conflict was unclear.

Tungsten – and Gold

And that’s where metals come in. Or, specifically, two metals – gold and tungsten (wolfram, in the parlance of the time). With the invasion of Russia in 1941, the Germans had effectively cut themselves off from the supply of strategic minerals from the Far East – and China was the major producer of tungsten. Tungsten was important – actually, vital – to the mechanised German war effort because it was the essential alloying element enabling them to manufacture both the heavy protective armour needed by their tanks on the one hand and the armour-piercing shells their gunners needed on the other. Portugal – with its mines particularly in the wild, rugged border area with Spain – was, with China out of the equation, the best place for the Germans to exploit to secure the metal. Except there was a problem – the best mines had already been contracted to the British, who also needed the mineral. But Germany had gold, looted from other European treasuries – and from less honourable origins.

Past and Present

So that’s the background. Against it, Wilson devises a quick-action plot which is split between the gold-for-tungsten trades undertaken by his – well, you can’t really call him a hero; let’s just call him an important character – German officer and the attempt by a modern-day Lisbon detective to solve the murder of a young girl in Cascais. The two elements – past and present – are knitted together by the way the ill-gotten gains the protagonists managed to secure in the 1940s drive their behaviour in subsequent years, up until the present time. I’m not going to give the plot away, but the struggles over the availability of the tungsten by the British and the Germans give a real immediacy to the wildcat scrabbling for ore that goes on until – let’s never forget supply and demand – having at one point peaked at 1700 percent above their starting level, prices fall back and the heat goes out of the market. As ever, the smart traders are the ones who get their money out before it crashes. Whether they make good use of it, of course, is a very different question; I would suggest that the road leading to murder is probably not the one to follow.

The book is not new, but relatively recent and I thoroughly recommend it as an exciting read, with the added spice of the mineral and mining background, which I would hope would appeal to the readers of this site. Who would have thought that the seemingly dull mechanics of the provision of supplies to an army could be as enthralling a read as the story of the actual battles themselves?

“A Small Death in Lisbon”, by Robert Wilson, is published by HarperCollins. It was a winner of the CWA Gold Dagger.




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