Hitler's Car: The Volkswagen Beetle's Crazy Role In World War II

November 2, 2019 Topic: Economics Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Volkswagen BeetleWorld War IINazi GermanyAdolf HitlerPorsc

Hitler's Car: The Volkswagen Beetle's Crazy Role In World War II

Adolf Hitler was a primary designer of the Volkswagen.

The Volkswagen’s Wartime Evolutions

The giant Wolfsburg factory, with its newly built “Strength Through Joy Town,” was converted in 1940 to build war materiél. Large areas were turned into repair shops for the Junkers Ju88 bombers. Also, large quantities of mines were to be produced, as well as BMW aircraft engines. Toward the end of the war, V-1 bomb rockets were also assembled there. Manufacture of the “war contingency alternative” to the People’s Car, the Kubelwagen, the Porsche version of the German Jeep, also got under way. This design was completely independent of the four-wheel-drive vehicle that the German Heereswaffenamt had built, which was much more expensive than the Kubelwagen. In January 1940, another version of the KdF, the 4×4 Type 86, was put through comparative testing at Eisenach. However, only two prototype vehicles of the Type 86 were ever built. The 4×4 continued as the Type 87.

As the Kubelwagen was being developed, on July 1, 1940, the Porsche Company was given a contract to build three variations of amphibious cross-country vehicle prototypes for the sum of 200,000 marks. The result, called the Schwimmwagen, was designated Type 128. The first prototype was based on a Type 82 Kubelwagen that had its doors welded shut. The entire body was sealed water-tight, and a propeller that folded down to engage with a shaft extension from the engine crank moved the Schwimmwagen through the water. The Type 128 used the same 1.13-liter engine as in other military versions. It was capable of 10 kph in calm water, and calm water was imperative because the all-in-one design was heavy enough to be easily swamped by the smallest of wakes or waves.

Because of the Nazi hierarchy’s lack of rapid decision making, production of the Kubelwagen was at an impasse until early 1940, when other comparison road tests proved the Kubelwagen to be superior to the HWA vehicle in many ways and cheaper to build. More than a year after the war started, production of the Kubelwagen finally ensued. The VW sedan with four-wheel-drive was called the Type 87. Running gear of the Type 87 was used for the Schwimmwagen Type 128 and Type 166. All VW 4x4s used the Kubelwagen chassis and 1131-cc engine.

In early December 1940, the Waffen-SS and the Porsche team conferred. The military wanted a small armored car, and on December 22 a contract was awarded. By January 14, 1941, the contract for the Type 823 armored Kubelwagen was amended to eliminate the armor and create another version called the Type 821, which was to be a radio car. Another version, an ambulance, was called the Type 822. Mockup prototypes of each were built in 1941.

Two other iterations based on the Type 82 Kubelwagen were an intelligence car and a repair car. In addition, there were also versions with rail wheels and other special equipment, but these were built as one-off or in very small numbers. The VW platform was proving itself to be efficient, inexpensive, and, above all, extremely versatile. It was particularly well suited for off-road desert conditions, and approximately half of the vehicles produced were used very effectively by General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The “tropical” version included Kronprinz balloon tires without longitudinal treads to trap sand and soil, special air filters as well as a second fuel tank, intended for drinking water but used for gasoline to double the range in areas where refueling was a drastic problem.

In the desert, the VWs far out-performed heavier Allied vehicles as water-cooled engines overheated and trucks bogged down in the sand. The VW was amazingly effective in North Africa, and decades later this capability was proven again in the form of the “dune buggy” and “baja bug” used in professional racing under similarly harsh desert conditions. With partially deflated rear tires, the traction of the quick, rear-engine vehicles was impressive in off-road conditions of all kinds, including the snow and ice encountered during the invasion of Russia. In freezing temperatures the air-cooled engines performed even better. The problem was there were just too few of the vehicles.

From 1940 to 1943, a total of 630 KdF sedans were also built with the designation Type 60 at Wolfsburg. These had a “civilian” (i.e., pre-Kubelwagen) chassis and used the slightly smaller 986-cc engine. An ambulance version was designated Type 67. One-off versions included a pickup truck and delivery truck. Also built were 564 Type 87 sedans, the latter with the 4×4 Kubelwagen chassis. Other one-off variations included a box van (Type 81) and open truck (Type 825).

The Type 82E Beetle, like the Type 82 Kubelwagen, had the additional gear reducers in each rear wheel and used larger 5.25×16 off-road tires. These Beetles were delivered in matte black, to be painted by the Wehrmacht with tan or camouflage colors. Delivered to the SS, these were called Type 92SS and included such items as rifle racks in the rear interior, a bracket-held submachine gun in the right front interior, slide-out desk from the glove compartment, and first aid kit.

At about the same time as the Waffen-SS group ordered Kubelwagens, the HWA ordered 100 Type 128 Schwimmwagens. These were thoroughly tested and the Porsche firm was given an extensive contract to build the amphibious off-road vehicles. Another version of the Schwimmwagen, the Type 138, was dropped, but the Type 166 and Type 177 were slated for manufacture. The latter designation was to have a five-speed transaxle, which never went into production. By the end of the war, 14,276 Schwimmwagens were built, almost all assembled at the Wolfsburg factory with bodies supplied by Ambi-Budd from Berlin. Sixty-six percent of all the Schwimmwagens were the Type 166, which was smaller and lighter than the Type 128. Most of them were supplied to Waffen-SS divisions after the Type 166 went into production in 1942. Officers of advance units used them to move across country, ford rivers, and carry out reconnaissance by water, but many officers used them as platforms for duck shooting.

An Expedition of VWs to Afghanistan

One of the more unusual theaters of operation for the VW during World War II was in the service of the Office of Colonial Policies. This German military section sent Type 82 E VWs and a Kubelwagen, along with a supply truck, on a trip to Afghanistan in June 1942. The vehicles were specially prepared for the trip. They were finished in high-gloss light paint and had chrome bumpers and door handles, ostensibly for protection against sand storms and oxidation. They also had auxiliary air vents in front of the windshield for ventilation, as well as extra louvers in the bulkhead between interior and engine for better cooling. Special air filters and off-road tires were also part of the equipment. The Office of Colonial Policies wanted to equip civil administrations with these types of vehicles.

Starting out in Berlin, the column drove through Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, and Constanza on the Black Sea. They were then loaded on a Romanian freighter. After a sea voyage from Istanbul to Trabzon, the vehicles reached Teheran and then were driven to the Afghanistan border. Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop insisted that the Afghan government collaborate with Germany to battle British forces on the Eastern Mediterranean and in India. When Iran, on the side of Germany, was occupied by British and Russian troops, the order was given to destroy the VWs so that they would not fall into Allied hands.

The Kettenlaufwerk

Yet another metamorphosis of the VW took the form of a half-track. The Porsche firm embarked on building VW-derived “People’s Tractors,” with this series culminating with the Type 151-1 half-track. It was also called the Kettenlaufwerk and was used successfully in small numbers both by the Afrika Korps and in Russia. Again using the VW platform, the Type 151-1 had three drive wheels of equal diameter on each side that powered the caterpillar tracks. Front wheels were of standard disc type used only for steering, as on nearly all half-tracks. It was used as a personnel carrier and tow tractor.

The Post-War VW

The Wolfsburg factory was heavily damaged by Allied bombing, but from May 1945 to the end of 1946, limited production continued with left-over parts. According to British military sources, during this time at least 1,785 VW Beetles were built, 977 with the KdF Beetle body and Kubelwagen chassis. Left-over Kubelwagens were also assembled when the factory was rebuilt under British Major Ivan Hirst. There were at least 10 variations of the Beetle with new designations and at least four for the Kubelwagen. The Ambi-Budd Berlin factory, now located in the Russian sector (soon to become part of East Germany) where Schwimmwagen and Kubelwagen bodies were pressed, was destroyed, so no additional vehicles with these bodies were assembled after 1946. In 1947, civilian VW Beetle production resumed. It was essentially the same Type 60 of prewar configuration.

At war’s end, Ferdinand Porsche was arrested by the French military and accused of war crimes. However, he was found to be not personally responsible for the use of slave labor, and through the efforts of his family he was released. He and his son subsequently finished development of the Porsche sports car, which had first been built as a prototype before the war. The first 50 units were built in Austria in 1948, after which time Porsche’s Stuttgart factory began building the Porsche 356 in 1950.