Inco’s Sudbury Nickel Mines were Critical During World War Two (Part 1 of 7) – by Stan Sudol

Inco World War Two PosterNickel Was the Most Strategic Metal

By anyone’s estimation, the highlight of Sudbury’s social calendar in 1939 was the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on June 5th, accompanied by Prime Minister Mackenzie King and a host of local dignitaries. This was the first time a reigning British monarch had ever visited Canada, let alone Sudbury, a testimony to the growing importance of the region’s vital nickel mines. The nickel operations in the Sudbury Basin were booming due to growing global tensions and increased spending on military budgets. Sudbury and the northeastern Ontario gold mining centres of Timmins and Kirkland Lake were among the few economic bright spots in a country devastated by the Great Depression.

In an April 15, 1938 article, Maclean’s Magazine journalist Leslie McFarlane described the three mining communities as, “Northern Ontario’s glittering triangle….No communities in all of Canada are busier, none more prosperous. The same golden light shines on each.”

During the royal visit, precedence was broken by allowing Queen Elizabeth the first female ever to go underground at the Frood Mine. Traditionally miners thought women would bring bad luck if they were permitted underground. There were probably many who thought the beginning of the Second World War on September 1, 1939 was the result of her subterranean visit.

The German invasion of Poland was to have dramatic effects on Sudbury. Many communities across Canada, Britain and the United States played exceptional roles in producing certain commodities and munitions for the war effort. However, it would be no exaggeration to say that in North America, Sudbury was among the top few communities that were absolutely critical to the war effort. The International Nickel Company of Canada, as it was known back then, and its employees in Sudbury would go on to supply an astonishing 95 per cent of all Allied demands for nickel – a vital raw material and a foundation metal absolutely essential for the Allies’ final victory.

Nickel’s unique properties include a combination of strength, hardness, ductility, resistance to corrosion and the ability to maintain strength under high heat. It can transfer these properties to other metals making nickel a critical component for a wide variety of civilian and military products.

World War Two was a mechanized war that utilized more technically advanced equipment than ever before. To win, the Allied armies needed guns, tanks, planes, battleships and a host of other weaponry that could only be made from hardened nickel-steels and other nickel-alloys.

For example, in the mighty flying B-29 Superfortresses, thousands of pounds of nickel alloys were used ranging from oil cooling units and fastening devices to engine parts, exhaust systems, instrumentation, and control assemblies for guns.

The war in the Pacific was primarily an amphibious battle requiring rugged engines made from nickel alloy parts able to withstand the corrosive effects of salt water. Invasion landing craft, submarines and aircraft carriers contained various nickel steels like “Monel metal” in the hulls, propeller shafting, gas and water tanks, and vital valve and pump parts, just to name a few marine uses.

Nickel hardened armor plate for tanks, nickel alloys for anti-aircraft guns and ordinance and even lightweight, tough portable bridges used in the invasion of Germany all required this essential metal.

“Given the chance, Hitler would willingly have traded the whole Silesian Basin, and thrown in Hermann Goering and Dr. Goebbels to boot, for a year’s possession of the Sudbury Basin,” Maclean’s journalist James H. Gray aptly wrote in an October 1, 1947 article on the city.

From the beginning of the war, the company’s expertise and vast production and research facilities in Sudbury, Port Colborne, Huntington, New Jersey and Britain were at the complete disposal of the Allied war effort. Some of the British facilities and the Huntington rolling mills were sold in 1997 and 1998.

International Nickel facilities at complete disposal for allies

In 1939 American CEO Robert C. Stanley stated, “the first obligation of every corporation, as of every individual, is to give the utmost support to his Government in the prosecution of the war.” As it turned out, these were not empty words. Company profits actually declined approximately twenty-five per cent during the war years due to capital expenditures, war taxes and the use of more costly mining methods to accelerate the production of nickel, copper and platinum.

The price of nickel was under government control. From 1929 to 1941 nickel sold for 35 cents a pound. For the remainder of the war it was reduced to 31 ½ cents per pound. By contrast, the metal cost between 40 and 55 cents a pound during World War One.

The export sales of the company’s nickel, copper and platinum metals were made under Canadian Government permits and with the sanction of the British Government. The ultimate destination of all nickel products exported from Canada was strictly controlled by a system of warranties.

Nickel was one of the first metals to require allocation. Non-essential use of this strategic metal was banned which included most of International Nickel’s civilian markets.
Ironically, company scientists and metallurgists offered free technical assistance to over 14,000 American customers that the company worked so hard in the previous two decades to establish, to find substitutes for nickel. There were legitimate concerns that these customers would not come back after the war.

The 1943 Canadian victory nickel coin was no exception. Until the end of the war, the five cent piece was made from a copper-zinc alloy. In the United States, the five cent coin contained silver, a much less strategic metal than nickel.

Click here for Part 2 of 7: