World War 1 inevitably brought mixed fortunes. Shell made a major contribution to the Allies’ war effort by becoming the main supplier of fuel to the British Expeditionary Force. It was also the sole supplier of aviation fuel and provided 80% of the army’s TNT. It also offered all of its ships to the British Admiralty. It therefore managed to enhance its reputation, while also managing to improve its profits in parts of the world unaffected by the conflict such as Venezuela, Mexico and Sarawak.

The war confirmed the supremacy of oil-fuelled transport over the slower and less flexible railway system the Germans relied on. However, during the German invasion of Romania in 1916, 17% of Shell’s worldwide production was destroyed in a few days. And, in Russia, all its assets were seized during the revolution of 1917.

Captain Alcock flew the Atlantic in a similar aircraft using Shell fuel
Alcock and Brown used Shell fuel to make the first trans-Atlantic flight in 1919

Prosperous inter-war years

The post-war period began positively when Alcock and Brown used Shell fuel to make the first transatlantic flight in 1919. The inter-war years were a time of rapid expansion for oil companies as the use of motor cars and demand for gasoline increased. There were also huge gains as major oil fields were discovered in California, South America and the Middle East.

Drilling techniques improved with the use of mud to regulate pressure in oil wells. The refining and downstream businesses also grew rapidly and, in 1929, Shell Chemicals was founded to advance the refinement of chemicals from oil.

By the end of the 1920s Shell was the world’s leading oil company, producing 11% of the globe’s crude oil supply and owning 10% of its tanker tonnage. Its fuel quality was high, it was diversifying its product base and it had an assured and prolific supply of oil from the Middle East. But the price of oil proved to be volatile and efforts to control the market by price-cutting or through an informal cartel with other oil majors failed.

Strategies, challenges and crises

The 1930s began with the Great Depression, forcing Shell to reduce its workforce and impose financial cuts. But the decade saw many advances: great progress in fuel and chemicals research and an explosion of brilliant advertising with themes of power, purity, reliability, modernity and getting away from it all. Many designs have become classics, as has the slogan created in this period: “You can be sure of Shell”.

As a mark of confidence, the group also purchased a large riverside plot on the Thames in London to build ShellMex House, a landmark building. The ShellMex company handled all marketing of Shell’s products. Part of the growing maturity of the marketing activities was the development of a global network of service stations where cars could refuel. The service stations, with their distinctive appearance, helped build Shell’s reputation for reliability and quality.

The shadow of war

The 1930s saw the politicisation of oil. Shell’s assets in Mexico were seized and to avoid a similar fate in Venezuela it was forced to concede generous terms to the government. In Europe, the rise of the Nazis posed a threat to the group’s Dutch assets. With the invasion of Holland after the outbreak of war in 1939, the head offices of the Dutch companies were moved to Curacao.

The London office remained open but was dedicated to supporting the British war effort. Properties in Eastern Europe were destroyed, particularly in Germany, and access to Romania was lost. The US refineries produced aviation fuel to support the Allied air forces. Shell Chemical Corporation produced butadiene for synthetic rubber, a vital commodity. All tankers came under Government control and Shell suffered heavy losses, including 87 ships.

Many Shell staff displayed great bravery in keeping the tankers going and were duly rewarded. Most famous of them was the flying ace Douglas Bader whose inspirational story was told in the film Reach for the Sky. He worked in the aviation department of Asiatic Petroleum before joining the RAF in 1939. He returned to Shell after the war, a hero.

Post-war expansion

Oil demand soars and Shell expands dynamically. The super-tanker is born, Shell extends its exploration overseas and forms a partnership with Ferrari.

1960s to the 1980s

Shell Chemicals enters a golden period of research; Shell produces its General Business Principles and diversifies its operations.

1980s to the new millennium

Shell grows through acquisitions and unifies Royal Dutch and Shell Transport and Trading under Royal Dutch Shell plc in 2005.

Our beginnings

How we grew from the Samuel family shop selling sea shells in 1833 into one of the world’s leading energy companies.

The first consignment of liquefied natural gas was shipped in 1964 from Algeria in the SS Methane Princess.

1960s to the 1980s

Shell continues to extend exploration overseas and adopts a policy of diversification. North sea gas fields are discovered.

Innovation and diversification
Shell headquarters, The Hague

1980s to the new millennium

Shell grows through acquisitions and unifies Royal Dutch and Shell Transport and Trading under Royal Dutch Shell plc in 2005.

Our history: 1980s to the present

More in about us

The Shell brand

The Shell brand promotes our values and the quality of our products and services all over the world.