A brief history of jerrycans

Thanks to dissertation-writing procrastination a few years ago, I watched all eight series of Foyle’s War in an absurdly short amount of time. This–perhaps embarrassingly–is how I became familiar with WWII (and probably WWI) slang, such as calling Americans ‘Tommies’ and Germans ‘Jerries’ (the reasons behind German nickname are a point of speculation).

Perhaps this was not the best way to learn about military history. But it led me to take a second look at jerrycans on my most recent trip to sub-Saharan Africa (specifically in Lusaka). Were these containers named after Germans? (Short answer: yes.) Might they be engineering marvels with deep historical importance that I had never appreciated before? (Short answer: also yes.)


Perhaps ‘jerrycan’ is a word lots of you folks were already using for water containers and had already thought deeply about — but it is a word with which I became familiar only in Ghana, where the colorful containers are ubiquitous (this picture is actually from my recent trip to Zambia; the yellow can is the one I am talking about).

Mtendere, Lusaka 2017

I associate the term with being used in Africa, being plastic, and with carrying water (as here). But the plastic containers are premised on a (revolutionary) German, pressed-steel, fuel-carrying model from 1937, nicknamed jerrycans by Allied troops. The originals were designed under secretive conditions to carry 20 liters, not require a funnel to fill or a wrench to unscrew, to be stackable, and — strengthened and made flexible by their X-shaped indentation — be durable beyond a single use. Evidently, Hitler already had thousands of these containers (Wehrmachtskanister) stockpiled by 1939.


While I think of jerrycans as being carried on the head (here’s a picture of a woman carrying 20 (!) this way), the design was intended to allow a soldier to carry two full or four empty cans – evidently quite an improvement on existing models (read here on “epic ergonomic failure”). The plastic version made a 1970 debut thanks to a Finnish engineer. They became commercially available shortly thereafter. In places like Africa (yes, broadly), they have provided a useful alternative to clay or metal pots for collecting and storing water and they are often a mainstay of NATO and UN efforts.


Apparently (note that much of this comes from Wikipedia) the jerrycan is quite an engineering marvel and its history is exciting because of the extreme importance of fuel and efficient (literally non-leaky) fuel distribution to the war effort and the reverse engineering of the design by Allied forces.


In one iteration of the story (relayed on Wikipedia and, seriously, on jerrycan.com), the model was effectively smuggled out of Germany by American engineer Paul Pleiss, who drove from Germany to India in 1939 — with a German colleague and three cans in tow (it is not clear whether part of the goal of this trip was to smuggle the cans out or if that was incidental; it seems likely that they just needed water and, along the way, Pleiss realized the cans were kind of neat). The German revealed the specifications for the cans before being recalled to Germany by Göring. Pleiss managed to get the cans back to the US from Kolkata and sent one to the US Army at Camp Holabird (to do this without alerting anyone to what interested him, he had the whole car shipped back via Turkey, cans included). The US eventually redesigned the German model to suit its needs, poorly at first and better later in the war (this blog post appears to be written by a WWII vet and discusses how he and a colleague got the US Navy interested in the design, in 1942).


Meanwhile, the British apparently first saw the German design in April 1940 in Norway and realized it was superior to their thin tin or mild-steel ‘flimsies,’ which leaked and often only endured a single use (at least as a carrying device; much is made online of their being turned into Benghazi Burners).


In 1940, Pleiss sent one of his cans to London for them to copy and manufacture. Still, the flimsies were very much part of the British arsenal as the war opened in the North African theatre (in June 1940) and the British armies there and in Europe did what they could to get their hands on the preferable German models. It seems that the continued production of flimsies for British troops prior to 1942, even while the troops were witnessing the superiority of the jerrycans, was a source of bitterness and demoralization. After this, the British ramped up production and were the main suppliers for Allied troops. Evidently, President Roosevelt (in November 1944) attributed to the cans the speed with which Allied forces were able to move across France following the invasion at Normandy.


All of which is to say, if you find yourself looking at a plastic water container and thinking that it is just a boring old water container, you are quite wrong.

Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

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