Saturday, April 18, 2015

Volkswagen at War

The Volkswagen’s amazing post-war success disguises the fact that, even with the unconditional financial and logistic support of the Nazi Party, there was no guarantee that the car would in fact survive. In 1939 the KDF was an entirely unproven vehicle and although it possessed several positive features, these were outweighed by numerous defects. Ironically, war was the crucible that turned the Volkswagen into a viable automobile.

Hitler’s KDF ‘people’s car’ project was a radical initiative without precedent in history. The project’s goals were audacious – to build a modern steel car, capable of transporting a family of four at a maximum speed of 100kph, and that would be economic on fuel and maintenance. The car would be paid for by subscription and built in the largest, most modern automobile factory in the Europe at the rate of 1 million cars per year. Both domestic and international observers questioned whether any of this was really possible.

A model of the giant Volkswagen factory that was to be built at Fallersleben (Wolfsburg) was displayed at the 1938 Berlin Auto Show. It would be the largest, purpose built auto factory in the world. A canal runs along the right hand side of the model. The factory power plant is visible as the slightly taller building at the top right hand corner of the model.

That was in 1934. After years of time-consuming development and frustrating setbacks, Hitler finally presented the KDF wagen to the German people at the 1937 Berlin Auto Show. The car, designed by the celebrated engineer, Ferdinand Porsche, whose work on the Auto-Union Silver Arrows had made him a household name, attracted immediate attention. It featured a mix of cutting edge technology, such as torsion bar suspension and rear mounted, low compression engine, but was compromised by low quality, cost saving fittings, such cable brakes and an unsynchronised gearbox. The bodywork was unlike almost every other car on the road, being curvaceous rather than streamlined. The car's styling instantly polarised opinion with some critics slamming the car as ‘ugly.’ A small handful of motoring critics were permitted to test drive the car and their reviews were mixed. In spite of the car's relatively poor handling one important feature was noted from the beginning – the car's engine was ultra-reliable and would run, tirelessly, under all conditions. Many thousands of customers didn’t need convincing and rushed to sign up to the purchase scheme. By 1940 336,000 customers had committed to the scheme.

The Nazi’s spared no expense on car’s promotion. A trio of cars stood as honour guard at the ground breaking ceremony at the site of the Wolfsburg factory and then did a publicity tour of the country. Hitler received the gift of a Volkswagen convertible for his 50th birthday and a car was donated to Germany’s Grand Prix driving team.

Ferry Porsche chauffeurs Hitler and his father in Hitler's Volkswagen convertible.

Germany's victorious Grand Prix drivers, Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hermann Lang mess around with their presentation Volkswagen.

The KDF organization produced a lavish 30 page vehicle prospectus, along with advertisements, flyers, promotional materials and newsletters. Yet, much of this was activity was smoke and mirrors as the Wolfsburg factory had yet to build a single vehicle. The preproduction Volkswagens had been hand-built by Daimler-Benz, Porsche Gmbh and a handful of karosseriewerkes at a cost in excess of the price of a Rolls-Royce or Horch limousine. The shortage of actual vehicles meant that the prototypes and preproduction cars were recycled, rebuilt and often substantially modified over the years making it extremely difficult to definitively trace the car's technical development.

A rare colour photograph of four pre-production VW30 models on tour through Berlin. The same cars were modified and repainted several times to give the impression there were more of them than there actually were.

The Nazi authorities recognized the provisional nature of the Volkswagen because they offered Porsche and his company a sweetheart contract with Volkswagen Gmbh that effectively made him a millionaire overnight Not only was Porsche paid a one Mark commission on every Volkswagen built, he was guaranteed 2,500 engineering days and 30,000 workshop hours per annum to continue development of the design. To tie him to the venture the Nazi’s also built Porsche a house at Wolfsburg overlooking the factory.

Porsche was attentive to the development of the factory, which was rapidly taking shape as the most modern automotive factory in the world, but his mercurial interest in the car itself rapidly waned. Improving the car was a matter of details - details that could be left to others - and Porsche turned his attention to other projects, such as the ‘volksschlepper’ (people’s tractor).

Ferdinand Porsche (standing to the right of the petrol tank in the black hat) briefs civilian and military personnel on the Volksschepper project. Although not as 'sexy' as the Volkswagen project, the industrialization of Germany's agricultural sector was just as important a priority for the Nazi's.  The Porsche tractor project, however, would not be be complete until after the war.

Ferry Porsche takes charge
Ferdinand Porsche’s son, Ferry, had been intimately involved in Volkswagen project from the beginning. He had coordinated the cars grueling road testing and development phase in 1936 and he now took control of the Volkswagen project. While his brother-in-law, Anton Peich, set up the production facilities at the new factory, Ferry and the Porsche design team worked on improving his father’s design.

Ferry Porsche (the young man in the black suit, second from the right) looks on while his father briefs Hitler at the 1938 Berlin Auto Show.

The Kubelwagen
With friends among the SS and Nazi leadership, Ferry realized that Germany would be at war by 1940, which would likely coincide with the completion of the Wolfsburg factory, and war, by anyone’s estimation, was bad news for a civilian car producer. A military contract however, would be a welcome lifeline until the war - expected to be short and victorious - was over. On his own initiative he initiated project 62 to develop a general purpose military vehicle.

The curvaceous Volkswagen was itself unsuitable as a military vehicle, but its robust chassis and ultra-reliable engine could be adapted for military use. The first Type 62 prototype was little more than a bare Volkswagen chassis with four tube frame seats and a small sloping bonnet. To keep the weight down the car had no doors or other bodywork. Testing showed that the spartan Type 62 was capable of traversing extremely rough ground and actually performed better than German Ford and Opel’s 4 x 4 light trucks, but it had inadequate ground clearance or protection for the passengers. The Wehrmacht however, were impressed enough with the prototype’s performance in trials to approve further development.

The original Type 62 prototype was basically a chassis with spartan running gear. As with many other contemporary German military vehicles, the spare wheels were mounted on each side to provide the passengers some meagre protection. The vehicle's low ground clearance is evident in the photo.

The next version of the Type 62 had much more in common with the civilian Volkswagen, with curved bodywork clearly adapted from the civilian car. To reduce weight the doors were replaced with canvas screens. Ground clearance is still low.

One of the military’s requirements was that the vehicle must be able to keep pace with marching infantry, but even Porsche’s low compression engine, running at tick-over, would quickly outrun marching soldiers. After considering a lower gearing ratio, Ferry came up with an imaginative solution by fitting reduction gears within the wheel hubs to drop the car’s idle speed. The car was also fitted with a ZF limited slip differential. To improve handling over rough ground, bigger wheels and higher suspension was added. After experimenting with modified Volkswagen panels, the car received its distinctive flat, stamped panel body to simplify construction and minimize cost.

An early production Type 82 Kubelwagen. The distinctive corrugated bodywork was used to provide strength to the otherwise thin metal panels.

In trials and pre-production service during the Poland campaign, Porsche’s new car consistently outperformed heavier military trucks and specialised 4 x 4 vehicles. The Wehrmacht was convinced and placed an order for the Type 82 ‘Kubelwagen’ (which meant bucket seat car – a misnomer since the car was now fitted with bench seats).

An early production Kubelwagen with the spare tyre recessed into the bonnet. The recessed bonnet was soon abandoned in favour of a flattened glacis in order to simplify production.

The production Kubelwagen was unveiled at the 1940 Berlin Auto Show where it shared the stage with the civilian KDF wagen. Note that the spare type is now mounted atop the flat bonnet glacis.

Technical manuals for the Kubelwagen and military Volkswagen appeared in 1940.

In 1940 the Wolfsburg Volkswagen factory was finally operational, but car production was sporadic and inefficient. The factory turned out engines and chassis, but although steel presses were installed, it did not produce Volkswagen bodies, which continued being manufactured by hand by Porsche, Daimler-Benz and specialist karosseriewerkes. The cost of hand tooling these vehicles meant that they consumed hundreds of man hours and cost an equivalent of 8,000RMs - a far cry from Hitler's proposed 990RM purchase price! Only a handful of civilian Volkswagen sedans were produced during the war for promotional purposes and Nazi bigwigs.

The factory celebrates the beginning of series production of the Volkswagen in 1941. These cars were hand-build at excessive cost for propaganda purposes and disguised significant operational problems at the factory. During the entire war only 667 military and civilian beetles were built at Wolfsburg.

The Type 87 military 'Kommanderswagen' was basically a civilian Volkswagen body mounted on a four wheel drive Kubelwagen chassis.

Similarly, the bodywork for the Type 82 Kubelwagen. the factory's main wartime product was manufactured by the Ambi-Budd karosseriewerkes in Berlin. Bodies were shipped to Wolfsburg and assembled by hand. 

Nevertheless, the Kubelwagen was beating its path across Europe and North Africa. Drivers appreciated the cars easy handling and low maintenance. Air-cooling was a particular advantage as the car rarely overheated, even in the desert conditions of North Africa. The cars’ light weight, balloon tyres and rear wheel drive allowed it traverse sand dunes and drifts that would bog other vehicles. The desert campaign did require changes to the cars’ air filter, but otherwise the Kubelwagen performed extremely well.

Similarly, on the Russian Front, Kubelwagen’s air-cooled engine proved its worth. In the sub-zero conditions of the Russian winter the entire German Army literally froze in its tracks. During the coldest month’s German trucks, tanks and aircraft were sometimes forced to keep their engines running 24 hours a day in order to prevent them from freezing. This increased the wear on engines, increasing the risk of breakdowns, and was prohibitively costly in terms of fuel. Being air-cooled, the Kubelwagen could be trusted to start even in the coldest conditions. In spring, when the Russian Steppe turned from a sheet of ice to a sea of mud, the Kubelwagen’s light weight and impressive traction was an advantage. The one consistent complaint about the Kubelwagen was its cable operated brakes, which were poor, even for the 1930s.

When push came to shove, the Kubelwagen was light enough to be manhandled over obstacles.

The Schwimmwagen
The German Army’s experience during the Blitzkrieg and the Russian campaign identified a requirement for a light scouting vehicle that was capable of fording streams and rivers. The Kubelwagen had already demonstrated an ability to ford shallow streams so Ferry Porsche and his team set to work to make the vehicle truly amphibious.

The initial design, designated the Type 128, was based on the Kubelwagen chassis fitted with a hull comprised of welded plates. The welded body plan proved too weak to handle the stresses of off-road and amphibious use and constantly leaked.

Ferry Porsche sits behind the wheel of the prototype schwimmwagen while his engineering team watch for leaks.

To address the challenge of maintaining hull integrity, Porsche and Volkswagen bodywork designer, Erwin Komenda abandoned the Kubelwagen chassis and designed a simple, pressed steel, boat-like hull that was 40cm shorter than the standard Volkswagen chassis. The vehicle had no doors. A standard Volkswagen engine was mounted in the rear and the four wheel drive train from the Type 87 'Kommanderwagen’ installed. Four-wheel drive only functioned in first gear. The exhaust and air filters were moved to the top of the rear deck and the car propelled itself in the water via a fold down propeller unit that connected to a simple drive shaft to the engine. The propeller had no reverse gear and the vehicle was reversed in the water by disconnecting the propeller and running the car’s wheels in reverse. The car steered in the water by turning the front wheels. On water the car could maintain a respectable 3 mph.

The schwimmwagen's four-wheel drive enabled it to tackle serious inclines.

Ferry Porsche presents the schwimmwagen to Hitler and Himmler in 1941. Himmler's SS were the first military units to take possession of the schwimmwagen. The schwimmwagen soon replacing motorcycle sidecar units as all terrain scouting vehicles.

Few amphibious vehicles have ever proved successful, but the schwimmwagen was as good on land as in the water. It was an excellent reconnaissance vehicle, able to traverse virtually any terrain and make substantial river crossings. Crews also appreciated the protection offered by its pressed steel hull. The schwimmwagen was certainly the most successful amphibious vehicle of the Second World War, and possibly of all time. Some 15,000 were built before construction stopped in August 1944.

War Footing

Kubel and schwimmwagen production keep the Wolfsburg factory running, but not anywhere near its full capacity. In fact, during the entire war the factory – the biggest purpose-built industrial plant in Germany – operated at less than half its capacity. The problem wasn’t one of capability but was simply that the Nazis viewed Hitler’s Volkswagen project as sacrosanct and despite pressing war needs, no one attempted to divert the factory from its original purpose. Alongside the factory the “City of the KDF Wagens” continued to grow, becoming home to some 50,000 residents by the war’s end.

Nevertheless, Ferry Porsche and Anton Peich’s pestering for more contracts resulted in a handful of military contracts falling to the Wolfsburg plant. A section of the factory was given over to production of wings, fuselages and fuel tanks for Junkers bombers. They also built Mercedes-Benz truck engines under license, and there was a vehicle maintenance facility for servicing trucks. Late in the war the plant manufactured the wings and fuselages for V-1 flying bombs. Like a boomerang, the flying bomb, would come back to haunt them all, almost destroying the entire Volkswagen project.

The Great Engineer and the Mighty Mouse
While Ferry Porsche was running the Volkswagen venture, Ferdinand Porsche was applying his talents to something entirely different. Hitler rewarded his favourite engineer with the post of Inspector General of Tank Design to oversee the next generation of German battle tanks. Germany started the war with four tank types, ranging from the Panzer I light scouting tanks through to the Panzer IV medium battle tanks. Light and fast, these tanks were the cornerstone of Germany’s Blitzkrieg and more than adequate to deal with the poor quality British, French and continental tanks they came up against. But on the Russian front the Germans confronted Russian heavy armour that was qualitatively more advanced than anything they'd faced before.  The nature of tank warfare quickly changed from one of rapid manoeuvre to something more akin to a slogging match.

In 1941 Porsche submitted a design study for a new heavy tank, designated the “Tiger.” Porsche’s Tiger was powered by two mid-mounted 600PS Mayback HL 120 TRL petrol engines, which drove an electrical generator that powered two electric engines driving the rear sprockets. It was a set up somewhat reminiscent with Porsches’ early electric hybrid engine vehicles he designed for Lohner in the 1890s. One hundred chassis were built by Porsche GmbH before the army selected the design presented by Henschel and Sons instead, which went into production as the Tiger I.

The Porsche Tiger is easily differentiated from the production Tiger due to the forward placement of its turret. Although Porsche's own tank designs were not really successful, many companies adopted Porsche's torsion bar suspension.

Porsche (in the hat) standing atop his Tiger.

The Ferdinand
The concept of the ‘tank destroyer’ evolved in response to the conditions on the eastern front where tank armies engaged each at long range across an open landscape. In order to mount the heaviest possible gun, the tank destroyer dispensed with turrets in favour of mounting the gun directly in the hull. Gun elevation and traverse were compromised by compensated by heavier frontal armour and a lower silhouette. This also simplified construction.

In 1942 Porsche adapted his pre-production Tiger tank chassis into a heavy tank destroyer. Due to the mid-mounting of the engine, the crew and gun compartment had to be tacked onto the rear of the vehicle as a large, rectangular casemate. This increased the tank's silhouette, making it a larger target, but allowed it mount the latest, high velocity 88mm anti-tank gun, capable of destroying even heavily armoured tanks at a range of 3 miles. They were named Ferdinand in Porsche’s honour.

93 Ferdinands were built and served with the 653rd Tank Destroyer Battalion.

Ferdinands' first saw service in the great tank battle at Kursk in 1943. They gained a fearsome reputation on the battlefield, but design flaws were immediately apparent. The crew had very poor visibility, especially to the side and rear and the Ferdinand was not equipped with any defensive weaponry. Russian infantry quickly learned Ferdinands could be easily swarmed and disabled by grenades and Molotov cocktails. Once disabled, they and their crews were helpless. The Ferdinands’ great weight of 65 tonnes also took its toll on engines, gearboxes, tracks and suspension and recovery was very difficult due to their immense weigh. Three Panzer IV recovery tanks were required to tow a single disabled Ferdinand, which contributed to their losses.

These two Ferdinand's lie abandoned on the Russian front.  

After the Battle of Kursk the 50 surviving Ferdinands were refitted with defensive machine guns and a commander’s cupola to improve visibility and were renamed ‘Elephants.’ In 1944 the 653rd unit was shipped west for service against the invading Allied forces, first in Italy and then in France, where they performed well until supplies of fuel, ammunition and spares faltered. Most Elephants were abandoned or destroyed by their crews.

Despite the obvious drawbacks inherent in the design of heavy tanks like the Tiger and Ferdinand, Ferdinand Porsche was working on a new super heavy tank project. Nicknamed ‘The Maus’ (mouse), this folly saw the development of the largest tank ever built. The Maus was almost 11 metres long, 4 metres high and weighed an astonishing 188 tonnes. Armoured on all sides, including over the tracks, and mounting a 128mm cannon that could destroy any Allied tank at medium range, the Maus was intended to be an impregnable moving fortress on the battlefield in support of more traditional armour. However, even Porsche’s genius could not overcome the Maus’ most obvious weakness – its incredible weight.

Ferdinand Porsche (in the black hat near the ladder) rides on the Maus prototype.

Like the Ferdinand, the Maus’ engines drove electrical generators which in turn drove the electric engines that provided motive power and turned the massive turret. However, there simply weren't any engines powerful enough to move the Maus at more than a crawl. Several different engines were trialled but the engine eventually fitted was a Daimler-Benz inverted V-12 cylinder diesel aero engine. Two hulls and a single turret were constructed before the testing ground in east Germany was overrun by Russian forces in 1945. After the war the Russians managed to construct a single working prototype from the components, which is now housed at the Kubinka Tank Museum, outside Moscow.

The captured Maus is loaded onto a specially built railway carriage. The weight of the tank was so great that the train itself could only cross specially reinforced bridges.

One can certainly question Ferdinand Porsche’s motivation for promoting such an outlandish project. The famous tank commander and Inspector General of Armoured Troops, Heinz Guderian, dismissed the project as being of no military value, but Porsche knew it was exactly the type of spectacular project that would impress Hitler and Porsche was able to use Hitler’s favour to override the general’s objections. Regardless of whether the project was viable, Porsche and company received substantial financial compensation for their efforts.

The Allies meet the Volkswagen
In 1942 British forces in North Africa stumbled over two abandoned Kubelwagen’s in the desert. Both had run out of fuel and been abandoned by their crews. This was Britain’s first chance to see the mysterious Volkswagen and after a brief preliminary review, they were shipped to England for study. One was put through extensive road testing and the other disassembled. An engineer’s report on the vehicle was then compiled which was startling in its contradictions.

The Kubelwagen was praised for its handling, good suspension, off-road capability, its general toughness, its low-maintenance engine (which was of strikingly better quality and performance than contemporary British engines), and its fuel efficiency. The poor quality of the Kubelwagen’s cable brakes was noted. Surprisingly, despite the generally positive evaluation, the report summary dismissed the Kubelwagen as a poorly manufactured vehicle with no redeeming features which the British motoring industry could learn from.

From the outset Britain’s motoring industry had viewed Hitler’s Volkswagen project with a mixture of contempt and grave concern. Firstly, the captains of the British motoring industry were fundamentally opposed to any sort of technological innovation and they simply could not countenance Porsche’s unorthodox design. With their minds closed, they could not conceive of any demand in England for Porsche’s novelty. While they were scathing of the vehicle itself, they could not fail to recognise its particular qualities. More than anything they feared that the capacity of the Wolfsburg plant, whether it was building Volkswagens or any other type of vehicle, was a mortal threat, not only to British exports, but to the British domestic market itself. It was therefore essential that the Volkswagen’s positive attributes were officially suppressed. British troops were advised against using captured Volkswagens, which were to be turned over to authorities and stripped for parts and scrapped.

Interestingly, the British recognized the value of one piece of the Kubelwagen’s equipment – its spare fuel tank – which was soon became known the world over as ‘the Gerry can.’

The Americans also captured their first Kubelwagens in North Africa in 1942 and sent them back to the United States for evaluation. The Americans in no way felt threatened by the Volkswagen and consequently their evaluation was far more impartial than the British. The Kubelwagen was compared favourably with the Jeep and American soldiers were permitted to use captured Volkswagens. In fact, in June 1944 the War Department issued a User and Technical Manual for the German Volkswagen. By the end of the war, thousands of Allied troops were driving around Europe in captured Kubelwagens, Schwimmwagens and Volkswagens.

Volkswagen history
Part 1 - Origin
Part 3 - Resurrection