The surprising history of the can that won WW II.
Words Michael Hilton
Fuel transportation to troops in battle zones has always been a key part of military strategy. By the time the World War II began, the German army had thousands of what they called "Wehrmacht Kanisters" in their arsenal. Developed under strict secrecy, the canisters were a work of brilliant design. Made from two pieces of pressed steel that slotted into each other, they needed only one weld to hold them together. An ingenious spout allowed it to pour smoothly without a funnel. It could be opened without a tool, and had an air chamber that would keep it afloat if it fell into the water. The three handles facilitated a soldier being able to hold up to four cans at a time by placing them together, and made for efficient handling in a bucket brigade. The inside was lined with an impervious plastic so they could be used for fuel or water.
One of the engineers was an Allied sympathizer and reportedly got the specs to some of the military higher-ups early on in the war. They didn’t appreciate the need for the can and ignored it. They chose to rely upon their much inferior can that was cumbersome, needed a wrench to open, a funnel to pour, and leaked as much as a third of its fuel.
Allied troops on the ground, however, came across the Wehrmacht Kanisters and right away saw the value in them. It took some time, but the British government finally developed a knock-off and manufactured them by the millions. By V-E Day some 21 million "Jerry Cans" were distributed around Europe (the Allied forces called the Germans "Jerry's"). As President Roosevelt noted: “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.”
This article was originally featured in Issue 023 of Iron & Air Magazine.