welcome to emmas housethought

volfrâmio: portugal in ww2

I’ve been obsessively curious about these small doors in the rock face that seem to be especially common around here.  Some are very discreet, and when I once asked a neighbour he teased me by saying “It’s private”. “Secret?” I asked, “Yes, secret things” of course, came the answer.

From someone else I heard that all these little holes in walls were hiding spots for the tungsten that farmers dug from their land during the Second World War, to sell to the Germans. WW2? Now I was fully sucked in.

Despite Salazar’s Estado Novo having much in common with the 1930’s dictatorships of Italy and Germany, Portugal was bound by a 500 year old alliance with Britain and was somehow able (unified with fascist Spain) to remain neutral. Salazar apparently didn’t like Hitler anyway. This doesn’t mean Portugal missed the war, of course, but instead played a discreet double hand with both sides. During the war, Portugal was a place of intrigue: of espionage, of refuge for the rich and escape for the Jews, and of favours played out to keep both the Axis and the Allies appeased. And Salazar was paid in gold.


Whether or not the large deposits of wolframite ore that Portugal had had anything to do with the negotiations for neutrality can be debated. In any case, the Germans needed to secure a supply of tungsten (which comes from wolframite or scheelite ore) for use in the manufacture of weapons.

Tungsten, today most commonly used in the filament of light bulbs and halogen lighting, was then a vital component to strengthen alloys (metal combinations) and made armaments more heat resistant.


Salazar granted concessions to both the English and the Germans for several mines in the Alentejo, the Beira Alto and around Castelo Branco in the East. Thus began Portugal’s Black Gold rush. High unemployment and a depressed rural economy provoked thousands and thousands of young people, farmers and entrepreneurial types to leave their homes for the mines.


Firstly, the Germans and English provided fairly paid employment for miners, people (normally women) to wash the ore and in the processing factories. They were accommodated and fed. But perhaps more exciting was the widespread illegal mines run by freelance prospectors and by local landowners. The finds by these prospectors were sold to the Germans, or to the English, via intermediaries. There was also a side-industry of forgery.


And fortunes were being made! Even just having a job in the mines, a worker might earn the rough equivalent of €5 a day, and while not extravagant, it did have a lot more buying power in 1942 than it does today. It was highly preferable to the misery of ration tickets, and for some, a weeks’ wages was more money than they had ever seen. The bigger bucks was made by individual prospectors. Stories of men rolling cigarettes with 100$00 notes, using taxis and hired cars, illiterate men sporting parker pens in their breast pockets, of stays in luxury hotels with prostitutes, and fables of villagers trying to buy trains, or even whole railways emerged. The train story still circulates today, apparently much to the embarrassment of the current residents of the village.


In reality, a new sector of country people could afford to educate their children, build houses and see a doctor. The search for tungsten and the promise of riches lifted the spirits and gave hope to the disadvantaged rural communities of 1940’s Portugal.

As the war wore on, the price of tungsten began to drop and by 1944 Salazar had began to tire of German gold and to favour the Allies. The British motive had always been to deprive the Germans of as much tungsten as possible, and now they had began a more precise campaign to disrupt mining. On their side was that the towns had begun to fill with sick men and young widows in black. Frequent accidents and the ubiquitous health problems of the miners tinged the vibrant reputation of the mines. But there had been an environmental impact as well. Rivers full of dead fish and contaminated drinking water directly contributed to the local people’s resentment of the continued German presence. The British capitalised on this by encouraging dissent which even led to minor skirmishes at some mines. With the war turning in favour the Allies, Churchill finally convinced Salazar to kick the Germans out.


So today, all that remains are some strange little villages with ruins of large factories and company housing. In Arouce, one the main centres of tungsten mining, there is an unexpected aura of wealth in the town planning, but we saw no obvious sign of mansions, art deco style theatres or grand hotels. Only the stories live on. But they have nothing to do with the little doors in the walls.


  1. Lynn Salt March 16, 2011 5:07 am Reply

    Hi, I just discovered this part of Portugal history also. It is a past not much discussed and holds some dark secrets. There is a book (probably you have read it) called A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert C. Wilson. It is not a literary masterpiece, but it is very interesting. It is written as a murder mystery and explains about Portugal during and after WWII. I love your photos!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 16th, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Thanks Lynn… book ordered several days ago… I wish it would come!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 16th, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    Oh and… what errors? 😉

    [Reply to comment]

  2. Johanna March 16, 2011 5:24 am Reply

    Did you ever read “A Small Death in Lisbon” by Robert Wilson. Wolfram, WWII played big roles in unravelling the crime. Great book! Great post once again!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 16th, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Thanks… now I really wish that book would get here!

    [Reply to comment]

  3. Richard Edwards March 16, 2011 6:31 am Reply

    Thanks Emma. May I add that Salazar spent most of his income from tungsten ( used to harden metal in tank building) in Britain. Near Nelas is the luxury Urgeirica hotel with a 1920´s English interior built by an Englishman: good for meals and afternoon tea for older visitors, partly set up to take foreign engineers and nearby the huge tungsten production plant buried with a sign detailing how much E.U. money was spent to prevent emissions. Just as in parts of Cornwall in the UK there is a link between granite and uranium.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 16th, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    I have to see that hotel. Thanks Richard… interesting.

    [Reply to comment]

  4. Elsa March 16, 2011 10:06 am Reply

    Thanks Emma, that was a great post. You can check out Robert Wilson http://www.robert-wilson.eu/biog.html who now lives in the Alentejo, wrote a great book set in WW11 Portugal called ‘A Small Death in Lisbon. And later ‘The Company of Strangers’. Lots of Wolfram references. They are are great read about this amazing time in Portugal’s history.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 16th, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Thanks Elsa. I’ve read two of Robert Wilson’s other books this year and I’m expecting A Small Death to arrive any day now… I had planned to get it read before publishing this, but…

    [Reply to comment]

  5. sophie March 16, 2011 11:03 pm Reply

    Really interesting post, thanks! So what are the little doors then? I’d always assumed they had water sources (springs or mines) behind them … or is it still a secret? xx

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 16th, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Top secret water mines, I believe… I suspect many of them are dry which would explain why there are so many…???

    [Reply to comment]


  6. Vernon March 18, 2011 3:30 pm Reply

    Hello Emma,

    After reading this delightful story about little known Portugal, it made me think of many years ago, when I worked on King Island, Bass Strait for the Scheelite mine, one of only three in the world.
    You are right it was mostly used for light globes.
    King Island is today a tourist resort known for it’s lobsters.
    You certainly have a way of extracting valuable information about your adopted country.


    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: March 19th, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Oh for some King Island Cream! So King Island Cheese! Oh King Island lobster! I could live there – and send The One to work in the mines???

    [Reply to comment]

  7. Joao April 4, 2011 2:03 am Reply


    Been reading your blog for quite some time now and I have to tell it’s just great! Unfortunately my parents can’t read english quite well, but they really enjoy when I tell them the stories you put around here 😉

    Anyway! I’m just curious if that village you called Arouce is really Arouca? Because that’s where my father was born and I still visit it frequently! It’s just such a lovely place… You should go there and visit the Archeological park with a very special type of rock/stone and giant trilobites! There’s also the food of course 😉 I would advise you to go to Parlamento and eat Arouquesa (it’s a type of cow the have there)

    I think my grandfather also tried to find some volfrâmio haha but he never got rich 😛 And, yes, those stories about lighting cigars with 100$00 notes is true but it’s kind of sad to think that even though some had lots of money, they actually didn’t know where to spend it, because they had always lived from what the earth gave ’em !

    [Reply to comment]

  8. Sardonicus August 23, 2011 9:11 am Reply

    [C-486] Noticing your interest in the story of Portuguese tungsten (or wolfram) may I refer to you several relevant references, most of them in Portuguese. Besides Wilson’s novel, quite interesting, a brilliant Portuguese writer, AQUILINO RIBEIRO wrote already in 1944 a novel directly addressed to the wolfram trade and mining during WW2. A more recent novel has been authored by MIGUEL MIRANDA. For those that are directly interested in further readings about this matter under the viewpoints of international affairs and/or social background, may I suggest you search in the net for the published thesis and other works by the following authors (alphabetically ordered) ANTONIO LOUÇÃ, ANTONIO TELO, ANTONIO VILAR, AVELÃS NUNES, LEAL DA SILVA, MARIA OTILIA LAGE, PEREIRA PINTO (suggest you search for each one under the NAME+VOLFRAMIO, some of them being not easy to find). All those texts are… in Portuguese.

    [Reply to comment]

  9. Linda October 22, 2011 6:59 am Reply

    Hi Emma

    I am an American who has lived in Portugal for a year now to get to know my Dad’s side of the family and the Portuguese culture and history. What you’ve put together is great!

    He was born in 1936 in the Algarve, and the way he tells it is very different than what I find on the internet. He was young, but I can’t believe he would misremember so badly. He says that families here were forced to give up half of whatever food they produced to feed the Axis armies – a huge hardship for people just scraping by already. And yes, when your wheat ran out because you had to give half of it away, you could use a ration coupon. He remembers putting on the one pair of shoes in the house, which only his toes would fit into, to wait in line all night in the winter for the small portion of bread allotted a family in exchange for a ration coupon.

    So, I don’t know about your mystery doors, but I can tell you that families had secret compartments and false walls and such to hide FOOD in order to survive. This may be what you’re seeing.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 6th, 2011 at 7:21 am

    wow linda, that’s interesting stuff I didn’t know. thanks.

    [Reply to comment]

  10. Barceló August 2, 2012 8:16 am Reply

    Related to “volframio” in Portugal you may see this video produced by the Portuguese tv network SIC. http://www.aterrememportugal.blogspot.pt/2012/03/volframio-nazi-candidato-premio.html

    [Reply to comment]

  11. minnie biggs July 9, 2013 5:09 pm Reply

    Emma, where do you live?

    Am suddenly interested in wolfram and where the mines were??

    (I used to live in Portugal and miss it a lot!)

    (now in Australia, pretty nice, also!)

    [Reply to comment]

  12. Roderic Ashley August 12, 2014 8:18 pm Reply

    Hi Emma

    Great article on a fascinating subject. Where are the mining villages you have photographed here?

    Do you know if there is a museum in Portugal on the WW2 wolfram era?



    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: August 18th, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    @Roderic no there are no specific museums as far as I’m aware but I expect some of the regional ethnographic museums to have something on it. I can’t remember the names of the towns now 😉

    [Reply to comment]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin