The 1936 story behind the Jerry can

Part one in a three-part series.

You may have heard a story about the Jerry can. Perhaps it goes something like Hitler was such a brilliant strategist that in 1936 he personally called forth an engineer to create a nearly perfect fuel can, which we still use to this day.

As a student of history I find this story nearly impossible to accept, not to mention as a humanist I find it a load of apologist nonsense about a genocidal maniac.

Why 1936, to begin with? Why did other countries take so long to follow? And how could Hitler’s grand supply-chain foresight three years before mobilizing for war with Poland fit into the many infamous Nazi fuel planning disasters that crippled the overall war effort?

No, Hitler wasn’t good at planning. No, Hitler wasn’t good at listening and adapting.

A more plausible story is that someone, probably a German soldier or mercenary assisting with Italian and Spanish fascist war campaigns in 1936, simply grew fed up with gas cans at a micro level. A WWI generation of fuel cans sucked for many reasons (couldn’t be stacked, leaked, couldn’t pour without a mess, couldn’t be carried in bulk).

I believe the archives should show this: from the summer to the fall of 1936, or maybe even earlier, German war management listened to field agents and decided something better was needed. Just like when the Nazis thought about putting radios in tanks for the first time, a decisive advantage in 1940, they also thought about motorized vehicle fuel supply.

It’s very likely some German soldier hated the inefficiency of the prior cans and borrowed or collaborated with Italian and Spanish fascists to find a better one. I see no evidence this can was meant to be a macro strategy for fuel supply management and plenty of evidence that Nazi fuel supply management overall was a disaster. The fact that a better can later was instrumental in battle outcomes was a reflection of grounded principles, not strategic thought.

And so an engineer won a Nazi contract to design a better can on some rather obvious theory of improving durability and portability to increase availability of fuel. Quality of engineering and manufacturing still was high in Germany at that time, despite emigrations and arrests of talent; so the Jerry can was born from a pressed metal factory preparing the Nazi war machine.

Some suggest the can was a military secret. Of course 1936 was full of secrecy to help with propaganda hiding the re-militarization. Hitler was a pathological liar who ran misinformation campaigns, playing a victim card over and over again, making technology secrecy essential. This was a factor.

Even more of a factor was a reluctance of Allies to listen to their field and incorporate feedback. Sending Sherman tanks into battle was an abject lesson in fail-faster because high casualties. Wasted fuel was harder to quantify. Unlike the Japanese however the Americans did adjust if they could see the need or advantage.

It turns out the Jerry can was discovered in 1939 by an American, even before hostilities, due to use at the Berlin airport (a German stole three and shared the technology). The delay in adoption by the Allies is related to their blindness to its value.

It took another four years because leadership of the Allies relied on statistical analysis and probably needed reports formatted with quantitative methods to make a change.

In 1942 an Allied soldier-chemist working on fuel logistics in northern Africa (e.g. facing similar things that soldiers in the Italian campaign of 1936 might have seen) converted qualitative field reports (e.g. old cans suck) into a statistics-based cable to Washington (e.g. we’re losing 40% of fuel before it even gets to the vehicle).

The lesson here is listening to qualitative field reports can inspire innovation in design, and quantitative analysis can show how small and simple changes in efficiency can make a major difference.

I am all ears if someone can find a memo from Hitler calling for a better fuel can and reasons to stockpile. It sounds a lot like revisionist theory to me, as if someone years from now would try to argue that President Obama anticipated social media growth and commissioned Facebook.

My guess based on data is an improved fuel containment design derived as a logical step from soldiers watching their losses during Spanish, Italian and Japanese fascist aggression.

Continue to part two or skip to three in this series…

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