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. My guess is the design came far more organically from soldiers with a best guess on stocks from field observations during Spanish, Italian and Japanese fascist aggression, rather than any master plan.
The Story behind the yellow Jerry can used as a logo for Charity:Water
Once upon a time I sailed across the Pacific with the typical yellow fuel can lashed to the deck.
Although yellow cans have specific meaning to me, which I thought was a standard because it is a safety issue, recently I found a charity worker flashing smiling children at me next to yellow cans of water.
I was told yellow Jerry cans for water is something seen “everywhere”.
You’ve seen it everywhere on our site, at our events, on our shirts… tattooed on our arms… and although the Jerry can has become a mainstay for our staff and supporters, we want to let you know what it actually is and why it’s a symbol of the charity: water mission.
Yellow fuel can. I had to disagree. It always has indicated danger to me; sickening fuel slick and fumes. Red cans, yellow cans. DO NOT DRINK. Regardless of continent or sea, I knew globally not to use the yellow cans when thirsty.
Confused by people asking for charity money? Me too.
I searched for why someone juxtaposed fuel cans with smiling happy children drinking clean water. Yellow cans seemed anything but appropriate for a “clean” anything. What is next, oil barrels?
So with that in mind I started reading and found some surprises on the charity website. Soon I became more concerned, not less.
You might say my opinion worsened as I read through a very strange and apologetic tone about “the German military” and their WWII leader:
To most people, this simple metal or plastic can means ‘gasoline,’ and rightfully so — the first Jerry cans were introduced as gasoline containers by the German military at the start of World War II.
Jerry cans existed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936, years prior to the start of WWII. These cans served both as fuel and water containers, which we know because they were stamped with clear markings for their purpose.
Germany was involved with and supported other fascist militarism. Someone within the growing Nazi war machine was looking at how to improve a fuel can long before Hitler mobilized troops on 15 March 1938 (passive capitulation of Czechoslovakia) or 1 September 1939 (1.5 million marched into Poland, conquering 140 miles in just one week).
I believe the real story goes to lessons in vehicle support and supply containers (e.g. evaporation/expansion) derived from Italian invasion (3 October 1935) of Ethiopia and there is evidence it the cans were modified or tested in the Spanish Civil War (17 July 1936).
Handling chemicals in extreme conditions had forced Italy and Spain to evolve their technology. For example the Italians had developed new mustard gas and new cannisters to drop on the Ethiopian hospitals flying the red cross (infamously killing Swedish medical leaders Fride Hylander and Gunnar Lundström).
The day called “darkest in the history of the International Red Cross” is worth reading if you want to get a sense of expanding conflict leading to a quickening pace of technology change in 1936.
Does the can mean gasoline? A phrase like “to most people” indicates some kind of data or source to check, yet none is provided.
I would say most people associate the Jerry can with a variety of fuels, not simply gasoline, and maybe even water. My data is based on search engine results (e.g. “Jerry Cans – Fuel, Water, Diesel, & Accessories” or “can be used for fuel and drinking water”)
We know 1930s Germany used gasoline for vehicles and yet their fuel cans were stamped with a generic word, Kraftstoff (fuel) instead. Perhaps today with yellow cans we are following in the design of the original Jerry can designers, who used unique symbols to differentiate the different fuels and water.
So to most people I think it fair to say the Jerry can means various liquids, not simply gasoline, and most people expect consistent symbols and use to avoid mixing them.
These five-gallon cans, also called ‘Jeep cans’ or ‘blitz cans’ (or, in Germany, ‘Wehrmachtskanisters’) were made of steel and usually sat in the back of vehicles as a reserve tank of gas.
Usually cans were strapped on the side of Nazi vehicles (and the sides of Allied vehicles as well, later) because this allowed less durable/convenient material to use the more controlled back space. Lashing the cans to the sides left your cargo space available and also avoided a mess. We did the same on our boat when we crossed the ocean. Reserve cans were balanced on either side, not in the back.
The cans are 20L capacity (about 5.28 US gallons or 4.40 UK gallons).
The cans were steel yet what is more notable is how they incorporated a synthetic lining.
Also given that Jerry cans weren’t used by Jeeps until many years later I am not sure why Jeep cans is mentioned here. It strangely brands the can with a trademark of a specific American vehicle despite the cans not being developed for it originally and being used much more widely.
Blitz also is odd to mention. It means lightning in German and refers to a military campaign tactic of the Nazis. Although a German war reference could make sense at first glance, today it calls into question a can with a trademark and significant engineering difference.
Originally in the 1940s a US company that made Jerry cans used the word “metal” in their name. They grew so large the vast majority of American fuel cans were made at this “metal” company. By the 1990s they had switched to making plastic cans. Their “metal” name was deprecated and replaced with a fuel can word associated with Nazis because, well, Oklahoma.
After changing its name to “Blitz” and changing production from metal to plastic the venerable American Jerry can manufacturer filed Chapter 11 during dozens of lawsuits over defective/explosive cans.
It’s said that Adolph Hitler anticipated the biggest challenge to taking over Europe in WWII was fuel supply. So Germany stocked up.
False and super annoying.
Look, this is very wrong for many reasons. I don’t expect to read charitable thoughts on Hitler from a supposed “charity” site. WTF. No really, WTF.
Also I find “it’s said” to be an unacceptable start to a pro-Hitler sentence that lacks any citation. Who said Hitler anticipated…what? Hitler was an insane dictator and deserves no glorifications. I should not need to cover this.
Nonetheless, it is easy to see how badly that fascist leader sucked at planning. The USAF points out he took his country to war with an acute fuel shortage and massive dependence on imports:
At the outbreak of the war, Germany’s stockpiles of fuel consisted of a total of 15 million barrels.
That is basically nothing, given their rate of consumption, and fuel was expected to run out by 1941. Fuel cans were not going to solve that challenge.
A Nazi official was surely eager to solve a part, an aspect of a fuel distribution problem, with a Jerry can. A pile or distribution of cans does not equate to solving massive supply issues, even if I accept it was the “biggest challenge”.
I mean of course fuel did not pose the “biggest challenge” to taking over Europe.
This claim is so absurd I don’t even know where to begin. Put it in reverse perspective: having solved the supply of fuel alone would not have won the war for the Axis. It was not the single deciding factor. It was a factor among many, with the other factors often being far more difficult.
A Hitler “anticipation” theory does not fit with Operation Barbarossa. Consider that more than 600,000 Nazi horses were relied upon in 1941 as fuel was running out, with a lack of standardization, split and confused leadership and overly-optomistic ideas of a quick victory that undermined logistics and supply-chain efforts.
The simple fact is from June to December 1941 the result was “half-starved and half-frozen; out of fuel and ammunition.” It was the opposite of anticipation and stocking up early.
As Germany moved through Europe and North Africa, so did their thousands of gasoline cans. These cans proved to be dependable and durable; soon, countries all over the world were adapting them to haul and store liquids, coining them ‘Jerry cans’ because of their German origin (‘Jerry’ was a snide name for a German WWII soldier). New water container designs emerged but nothing could top the strength and simplicity of the original rectangular, X-marked Jerry can.
Obviously there were more than thousands of cans. The discovery of the Jerry can did not lead directly to adoption by the Allies. I sense some odd reverence for Nazis, even to the point of trying to apologize for “snide” names.
“Jerry” was actually a term used by Allies during WWI supposedly because the German helmet resembled a British jerry (chamber pot).
Snide? Is this a concern without context? War against fascism, let alone against genocide, perhaps invites derision?
As far as “new water container” designs I must again point out the original Jerry can also was used for water, with a designated stamp on the can to differentiate from fuel cans.
Jerry can design innovations
Jerry cans improved greatly upon prior cans, yet are quite simple in retrospect — better durability and portability. This can be explained with a couple short stories from the Allied perspective.
Paul Pleiss was an American engineer in Berlin who had used the new cannister (see Appendix A below) and realized its benefits. From the summer of 1939 to the summer of 1940 he found it very difficult to make a case (pun not intended) to the US military. America was reluctant to improve container design until they were forced to study and realize shortcomings in their North Africa campaign.
Things really turned around in 1942 after field qualitative reports backed by quantitative evidence said nearly half of fuel in Egypt was lost due to can failure. Depsite sizable effects recorded in desert battle outcomes in prior years (Wavell 1940, Auchinleck 1941, Montgomery 1942) for the US it was measured data that really hit home.
“…we sent a cable to naval officials in Washington stating that 40 percent of all the gasoline sent to Egypt was being lost through spillage and evaporation. We added that a detailed report would follow. The 40 percent figure was actually a guess intended to provoke alarm, but it worked. A cable came back immediately requesting confirmation.”
Six years after Italy’s campaign in Ethiopia influenced German thinking on cans, the US reached the same conclusions in North Africa.
The British appear to have ignored can design as Germany was innovating. At the start of WWII hostilities in 1939 UK still issued a “flimsy” can. The better Jerry can design only came to light for them in 1940 as French General Gamelin troops withered, leaving Britain alone to fight the Germans. An over-extended and fragile but fast German blitzkreig (lightning war) forced British study and realization; fuel portability could create a “Blitz” performance.
For example a can with a single handle is inferior to multiple handles when considering a line of soldiers trying to “bucket brigade”. Side handles meant two people could grab a can at the same time, or a single person could grab two with one hand. Faster can opening times mattered, as did less spillage during fuel transfer.
Put these British and American realizations together and you get what I believe to have been the context in November 1936 when Vinzenz Grünvogel of Müller applied for a German “Wehrmachtskanister” contract. An Italian campaign in Africa sparked the need for improvement, which then was tested in Spain. And speaking of context it seems also to be worth mentioning that there was prior “pressed material” collaboration between Müller and Ambi-Budd Presswerk. The Jerry can pressed design was a derivative more than a novelty.
With Italian tanks crossing Ethiopian territory in mind, here were the specifications:
- 465mm tall
- 340mm wide
- 20L capacity
- 4kg dry weight
- easy to stack
- easy to manufacture (two plates pressed)
- easy to carry (one soldier = two full, four empty) +
(two soldiers = three for bucket brigade speed of transfer)
- shock (recessed welds)
- corrosion (synthetic lining)
- float (air pocket “bump”)
- pour (short spout)
- seal (cam with lock)
- expand (50deg max)
From the list it should be easy to see why the design has lasted. Ultimately these cans were manufactured by dozens of Axis companies (Müller, Presswerke, Metalwerk, Nowack, Fischer, Schwelm, etc) let alone by companies of the Allies after 1942.
Symbols and markings
Now take a minute to go back to the idea of contents. As I mentioned the Germans stamped cans with “Wasser” (water) or “Kraftstoff” (fuel). Despite a stamping process there also can be found a white W (Winterkraftstoff) on cans sent into the German campaigns. This reinforces that signage was evolving and a critical component. It also points again to a lack of overall planning and preparation mentioned above (Hitler apparently refused to believe war would last into winter).
And that brings me back to the yellow cans of today. How should cans with different contents safely be identified? Is there a standard? The answer is yes and no. Standards tend to evolve although generally they would go something like this.
- Gasoline – Red
- Diesel – Yellow
- Drinking water (potable) – White
- Alt Fuels (Kerosene, JP Jet Fuel, Heli, M1 Meth, etc) – Blue
- Non-potable water – Green
Modern (e.g. 2005 California):
- Gasoline – red;
- Diesel – yellow; and
- Kerosene – blue
As far as I can tell Charity:Water uses yellow cans because convenience, not safety or health. They give no good explanation other than people in need already use diesel cans for water.
And that makes about as much sense as saying people in need already drink contaminated water so keep doing it.
It is not that I am opposed to redefining the colors. Here is a clever new version of white Jerry can contents.
My concern is the illogical position of pushing a global campaign to indicate clean water with the image taken from an Axis design and a global standard for dangerous/toxic liquid.
Starting from instinct it seems counter-productive to a charity objective. Moving on to deeper analysis a weak grasp of history suggests this may be a group divorced from reality/facts on the ground.
More on that…another day.
The Little Can That Could by Richard M. Daniel
Invention and Technology, Fall 1987, pp 60-64
During World War II the United States exported more tons of petroleum products than of all other war matériel combined. The mainstay of the enormous oil and gasoline transportation network that fed the war was the oceangoing tanker, supplemented on land by pipelines, railroad tank cars, and trucks. But for combat vehicles on the move, another link was crucial—smaller containers that could be carried and poured by hand and moved around a battle zone by trucks.
Hitler knew this. He perceived early on that the weakest link in his plans for blitzkrieg using his panzer divisions was fuel supply. He ordered his staff to design a fuel container that would minimize gasoline losses under combat conditions. As a result the German army had thousands of jerrycans, as they came to be called, stored and ready when hostilities began in 1939.
The jerrycan had been developed under the strictest secrecy, and its unique features were many. It was flat-sided and rectangular in shape, consisting of two halves welded together as in a typical automobile gasoline tank. It had three handles, enabling one man to carry two cans and pass one to another man in bucket-brigade fashion. Its capacity was approximately five U.S. gallons; its weight filled, forty-five pounds. Thanks to an air chamber at the top, it would float on water if dropped overboard or from a plane. Its short spout was secured with a snap closure that could be propped open for pouring, making unnecessary any funnel or opener. A gasket made the mouth leakproof. An air-breathing tube from the spout to the air space kept the pouring smooth. And most important, the can’s inside was lined with an impervious plastic material developed for the insides of steel beer barrels. This enabled the jerrycan to be used alternately for gasoline and water.
Early in the summer of 1939, this secret weapon began a roundabout odyssey into American hands. An American engineer named Paul Pleiss, finishing up a manufacturing job in Berlin, persuaded a German colleague to join him on a vacation trip overland to India. The two bought an automobile chassis and built a body for it. As they prepared to leave on their journey, they realized that they had no provision for emergency water. The German engineer knew of and had access to thousands of jerrycans stored at Tempelhof Airport. He simply took three and mounted them on the underside of the car.
The two drove across eleven national borders without incident and were halfway across India when Field Marshal Goering sent a plane to take the German engineer back home. Before departing, the engineer compounded his treason by giving Pleiss complete specifications for the jerrycan’s manufacture. Pleiss continued on alone to Calcutta. Then he put the car in storage and returned to Philadelphia.
Back in the United States, Pleiss told military officials about the container, but without a sample can he could stir no interest, even though the war was now well under way. The risk involved in having the cans removed from the car and shipped from Calcutta seemed too great, so he eventually had the complete vehicle sent to him, via Turkey and the Cape of Good Hope. It arrived in New York in the summer of 1940 with the three jerrycans intact. Pleiss immediately sent one of the cans to Washington. The War Department looked at it but unwisely decided that an updated version of their World War I container would be good enough. That was a cylindrical ten-gallon can with two screw closures. It required a wrench and a funnel for pouring.
That one jerrycan in the Army’s possession was later sent to Camp Holabird, in Maryland. There it was poorly redesigned; the only features retained were the size, shape, and handles. The welded circumferential joint was replaced with rolled seams around the bottom and one side. Both a wrench and a funnel were required for its use. And it now had no lining. As any petroleum engineer knows, it is unsafe to store gasoline in a container with rolled seams. This ersatz can did not win wide acceptance.
The British first encountered the jerrycan during the German invasion of Norway, in 1940, and gave it its English name (the Germans were, of course, the “Jerries”). Later that year Pleiss was in London and was asked by British officers if he knew anything about the can’s design and manufacture. He ordered the second of his three jerrycans flown to London. Steps were taken to manufacture exact duplicates of it.
Two years later the United States was still oblivious of the can. Then, in September 1942, two quality-control officers posted to American refineries in the Mideast ran smack into the problems being created by ignoring the jerrycan. I was one of those two. Passing through Cairo two weeks before the start of the Battle of El Alamein, we learned that the British wanted no part of a planned U.S. Navy can; as far as they were concerned, the only container worth having was the Jerrycan, even though their only supply was those captured in battle. The British were bitter; two years after the invasion of Norway there was still no evidence that their government had done anything about the jerrycan.
My colleague and I learned quickly about the jerrycan’s advantages and the Allied can’s costly disadvantages, and we sent a cable to naval officals in Washington stating that 40 percent of all the gasoline sent to Egypt was being lost through spillage and evaporation. We added that a detailed report would follow. The 40 percent figure was actually a guess intended to provoke alarm, but it worked. A cable came back immediately requesting confirmation.
We then arranged a visit to several fuel-handling depots at the rear of Montgomery’s army and found there that conditions were indeed appalling. Fuel arrived by rail from the sea in fifty-five-gallon steel drums with rolled seams and friction-sealed metallic mouths. The drums were handled violently by local laborers. Many leaked. The next link in the chain was the infamous five-gallon “petrol tin.” This was a square can of tin plate that had been used for decades to supply lamp kerosene. It was hardly useful for gasoline. In the hot desert sun, it tended to swell up, burst at the seams, and leak. Since a funnel was needed for pouring, spillage was also a problem.
Allied soldiers in Africa knew that the only gasoline container worth having was German. Similar tins were carried on Liberator bombers in flight. They leaked out perhaps a third of the fuel they carried. Because of this, General Wavell’s defeat of the Italians in North Africa in 1940 had come to naught. His planes and combat vehicles had literally run out of gas. Likewise in 1941, General Auchinleck’s victory over Rommel had withered away. In 1942 General Montgomery saw to it that he had enough supplies, including gasoline, to whip Rommel in spite of terrific wastage. And he was helped by captured jerrycans.
The British historian Desmond Young later confirmed the great importance of oil cans in the early African part of the war. “No one who did not serve in the desert,” he wrote, “can realise to what extent the difference between complete and partial success rested on the simplest item of our equipment—and the worst. Whoever sent our troops into desert warfare with the [five-gallon] petrol tin has much to answer for. General Auchinleck estimates that this ‘flimsy and illconstructed container’ led to the loss of thirty per cent of petrol between base and consumer. … The overall loss was almost incalculable. To calculate the tanks destroyed, the number of men who were killed or went into captivity because of shortage of petrol at some crucial moment, the ships and merchant seamen lost in carrying it, would be quite impossible.”
After my colleague and I made our report, a new five-gallon container under consideration in Washington was canceled. Meanwhile the British were finally gearing up for mass production. Two million British jerrycans were sent to North Africa in early 1943, and by early 1944 they were being manufactured in the Middle East. Since the British had such a head start, the Allies agreed to let them produce all the cans needed for the invasion of Europe. Millions were ready by D-day. By V-E day some twenty-one million Allied jerrycans had been scattered all over Europe. President Roosevelt observed in November 1944, “Without these cans it would have been impossible for our armies to cut their way across France at a lightning pace which exceeded the German Blitz of 1940.”
In Washington little about the jerrycan appears in the official record. A military report says simply, “A sample of the jerry can was brought to the office of the Quartermaster General in the summer of 1940.”
Richard M. Daniel is a retired commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve and a chemical engineer.