Finland’s Strategic Nickel Deposits
In the 1930s, Inco had invested several million dollars developing valuable nickel deposits in the Petsamo district of northern Finland, close to the Russian border. At the outbreak of war events in the region unfolded with lightning speed. The Soviets invaded Finland and annexed the nickel mines in March 1940. Germany invaded Russia in 1941 and the Finns recaptured the nickel mines which were immediately put under German control.
The British wanted Inco Limited to keep operating the mines even though production would be sold to the Germans. They were hoping that Inco could slow down development and provide the necessary intelligence for nickel shipments that the British navy could destroy. The Mackenzie King government in Ottawa steadfastly refused to co-operate with this plan. Their big fear was the negative public reaction if it was discovered that a Canadian company was helping send vital nickel to the enemy.
During the First World War some Sudbury nickel had been shipped to the Germans via a neutral United States. The “Deutschland” incident caused a huge uproar in Canada and Prime Minister King was adamant that a similar event would not happen. Inco was caught in the middle but agreed to abide with the Canadian government even though its concession in Finland would ultimately be lost.
By the end of that year, about 70,000 tons of nickel was shipped back to Germany from Petsamo. In 1944, the tides of war were changing once again and the Finns signed an armistice with Russia in September. The Germans fought bitterly to keep control of the vital nickel mines.
At the end of the war, the nickel mines of northern Finland were annexed by Russia and Inco was eventually paid $20 million as compensation even though CEO Robert Stanley felt this was $15 million less than its worth. The Soviets changed the name Petsamo to Pechenga and the operations are still in production under Norilsk Nickel’s control. Inco Limited had helped establish the Soviet Union’s nickel industry that eventually became a significant competitor and cut into the company’s global market share in the 1980s and 1990s.
International Nickel Communities Should be Proud of Their Wartime Roles
There was a decrease in nickel consumption immediately after the war. However, the rebuilding of the world’s devastated economies and pent-up civilian demand for nickel containing products combined with the military build-up during the Korean conflict and ensuing cold war hostilities, ensured exploding demand for this strategic metal. Further exploration in the Sudbury Basin found more deposits that helped meet growing world demand.
From 1939 to 1945, International Nickel delivered to the Allied countries 1.5 billion pounds of nickel, 1.75 billion pounds of copper and over 1.8 million ounces of platinum metals. The tonnage of ore mined during the war years equaled the production of the company and its predecessors during the previous 54 years of their existence.
On May 17, 1943, a live Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio broadcast from Sudbury announced, “ The ships, guns, tanks and planes that today are taking parting a victory which in our hearts makes us proud and grateful, have been lightened , strengthened or toughened by nickel mined here. …. And every minute of every day, the nickel produced by the men and women in our audience tonight, toughens and multiplies the sinews of war that will help spell the annihilation of the Axis forces. Here, then, their task is tremendously vital, and their record – a distinguished one.”
By the beginning of the Second World War, International Nickel Company of Canada was a global corporation with operations and markets in Canada, the United States, Britain and Europe. Other than an intrinsic anti-union sentiment pervasive throughout Inco management – very common amongst all large corporations of the era – the company made significant financial sacrifices for the war effort.
The company gave up lower grade ore reserves to speed up production, worked closely with Canadian government officials to ensure no nickel reached enemy nations, over built capacity that might not have been needed after the war and helped customers find substitutes for nickel, not sure they would come back to the original metal.
The company even gave up the Petsamo nickel concession, the largest new nickel deposit in the world at that time for political reasons and inadequate compensation. The company’s loyalty to Canada over its broader corporate interests would surprise many even in this day and age.