Saturday, 21 January 2017
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Review: Wolfram Wars - Exposing the Secret Battle in PortugalI looked forward to reading this book, since it is a subject I know something of and I expected to learn more about Portuguese exports of wolfram during World War 2. This slim volume, however, (147 pages, of which 127 are text) devotes only about a quarter of its pages to the story of wolfram. I felt as I read in the first half of the book about traditional industries in Portugal, and the activities of the Marquês de Pombal, (who said after the Earthquake, Bury the dead and feed the living) that the author was either padding out his story or he had lost his way. On page 6, he writes that Bartolomeu Dias (in 1488) and Vasco da Gama (in 1498) enjoyed the royal backing of Prince Henry the Navigator (who had died in 1460). Much more important for the impetus given to the discoveries in the 1490s was D João II, who is practically unknown and unsung outside Portugal. There is much more to the enclave of Goa than the island of Goa which most certainly does not lie off the coast of India.

The description of Salazar´s rise to power is informative, but scarcely anything to do with wolfram, and equally the fourteen pages on a description of Salazar´s period as dictator of Portugal are interesting, but neither do they forward the story of wolfram, nor does the story of Lisbon during the war, nor the spying activities conducted by both sides. We learn that Sousa Mendes, Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, granted visas to refugees, of Leslie Howard´s disappearance, of the spies in Portugal, Garbo, Tricycle and Ian Fleming. Similarly, pages 123 – 132 treat with Modern Portugal, a subject which has only the remotest links with the Wolfram Wars.

In chapter two, we were introduced to wolfram as the chemical element (FeMn)WO4, which of course is not an element but a compound of iron, manganese and tungstate. This ore is called wolframite (or in different forms ferberite, hübnerite or scheelite). In the course of the book, the author uses the term wolfram, but appears on p 86 to equate wolfram the metal with wolframite the ore. Wolfram and tungsten are interchangeable names for the element (symbol W) which melts at over 3000º Centigrade. This property makes it crucial as an hardening additive for armour and missiles (bullets and shells). During the war, for both Germany and the Allies, the main source of this important element was Portugal.

Wolfram Wars: Exposing the Secret Battle in Portugal by Rod Ashley - Dark River 2016At last on page 85, Mr Ashley turns to the issue of the supply of wolfram. The story of the the interface between British agents and those of Nazi Germany is fascinating, and Mr Ashley leads us well through the intricate negotiations between Britain and Portugal and between Germany and Portugal. He seems to think that Germany was in a position to invade Portugal and plunder whatever it wanted, as he writes. In Iberia, the threat of invasion was great in 1940, but after the invasion of the USSR in June 1941, it is doubtful that Germany had the resources to invade Spain and then Portugal, whose regimes were in any case sympathetic to Nazi Germany. Mr Ashley´s descriptions of the working conditions and the quotations from those involved in mining wolframite are good and earthy. The story becomes more interesting, but mistakes still occur. Pliny was not the Governor of Iberia in AD 70-75, but in 72-74 CE was probably Procurator of Hispania Tarraconensis on the other side of the peninsula.

On p 97, the author shows that Wolfram rose from 80 US cents in 1939 to 24 US dollars in early 1942. Are we considering the price of the metal or the ore? Is it part refined, or crude? Is the price per kilogramme, per pound, or what? The description of the machinations between the Allies and Germany for the purchase of Portuguese wolframite are detailed and require close attention.

From p 103, the author directs our attention to the issue of the gold used by the Nazis to pay for Portuguese wolframite. The export through Switzerland of gold sequestrated from Belgium, Holland and Austria together with gold stolen from death camp victims to pay for Portuguese wolframite was the subject of international dispute for over 50 years after the end of the war. We learn that Salazar was not the only Portuguese who could be intransigent, as Portugal steadfastly refused to return any more than four out of the forty-four tons of gold imported during the war.

Throughout the book, Mr Ashley uses a chatty and familiar style which is probably all right with young students, but which grated with me, and it was disappointing that, according to the bibliography, he used no Portuguese language sources at all. His source on Salazar, Kay´s Salazar and Modern Portugal, was first published 46 years ago, and has been superseded, at least in Portuguese. The author´s translations of Portuguese are also not to be trusted.

Mr Ashley uses a particular phrase more than once in this book and yet fails to explain it. Portugal was an influential country, punching above its weight in international discovery and trade, he writes. The period of Portuguese discoveries was of course the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and Portugal in the 19th and early 20th centuries for years teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Except for two distinct periods (the sixteenth century spice boom, and the eighteenth century gold boom), Portugal has never enjoyed prosperity, nor has it been particularly influential. There are other errors of fact in the book, such as that the Estado Novo came in to being 1926 (the date of the military coup; in fact the Estado Novo was introduced in 1933); that Salazar had only one romantic association (he had several, the most famous being that with the French author Christine Garnier); and that Salazar was reputed to have on his desk a photograph of Mussolini (he actually did have such a picture).

Beginning this slim volume with hope and expectation, I found much of interest in it and some facts which were new to me, yet I was disappointed that so little of its content was connected with the Wolfram Wars. For a more memorable treatment of the wolfram issue, readers are recommended to turn to Robert Wilson´s A Small Death in Lisbon; this book is a novel, but accurately reflects the danger and tension surrounding the wolfram trade during World War 2.

Peter Kingdon Booker
President, Algarve History Association

Wolfram Wars: Exposing the Secret Battle in Portugal by Rod Ashley - Dark River 2016

Wolfram Wars is available in Print and eBook formats. Free hardcopy shipping to Portugal is available. 
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+1 #3 Verjinie 2016-08-05 16:01
I do hope that Peter will include this subject in one of his Algarve History Association lectures at the Tavira (and Olhau) biblioteca. More most welcome enlightenment in my world of ignorance.
+6 #2 CSpencer 2016-07-31 08:01
Me too. I shall be interested to read this latest offering even though it may not be 100% accurate.
+7 #1 DAVID PIMBLETT 2016-07-31 07:43
PKB does not hold back and much as I respect him I am still going to get the book.