The history of the jerrycan is notable because the German design was reverse engineered and subsequently copied, with minor modifications, by the Allies during the Second World War. The name of the jerrycan refers to its German origins, Jerry being wartime slang for Germans.

German invention

The Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister, as it was known in Germany, was first developed in 1937 by the Müller engineering firm in Schwelm to a design by their chief engineer Vinzenz Grünvogel.[4] A similar design was used in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War,[5] where they had a company logo for Ambi-Budd Presswerk G.m.b.H.

By 1939 the German military had thousands of such cans stockpiled in anticipation of war. Motorised troops were issued the cans with lengths of rubber hose in order to siphon fuel from any available source, as a way to aid their rapid advance through Poland at the start of the Second World War.[6]

American lack of interest

In 1939, American engineer Paul Pleiss had built a vehicle to journey to India with his German colleague. After building the car, they realised they did not have any storage for emergency water. The German engineer had access to the stockpile of jerrycans at Berlin Tempelhof Airport and managed to take three of them. They drove across 11 national borders without incident until Field Marshal Göring sent a plane to take the engineer home. The German engineer also gave Pleiss complete specifications for the manufacture of the can.[6] Pleiss continued on to Calcutta, put his car in storage, and flew back to Philadelphia, where he told American military officials about the can. He could raise no interest.[6] Without a sample, he realised he could not get anywhere. He eventually shipped the car to New York by a roundabout method, and sent a can to Washington. The War Department decided instead to use World War I ten-US-gallon (38 l; 8.3 imp gal) cans with two screw closures, which required both a spanner and funnel for pouring.[6]

The one jerrycan in American possession was sent to Camp Holabird, Maryland, where it was poorly redesigned. The new design only retained the handles, size and shape. The weld was replaced with rolled seams which were prone to leakage, the lining was removed and it now required a wrench and a funnel.[6]

The original design proved far superior and these fuel containers were subsequently used in all theatres of war around the world.[6] Such was the importance of the cans in the war effort that 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 Blitzkrieg of 1940.”[4]

Russian usage

The strength of the Wehrmachtskanister was determined in the Soviet Union. Its design was later copied and the Soviet Army accepted it as the standard container for liquids. This container is still being produced and used in modern Russia. In civilian use this container is used primarily for automotive fuel and lubricants.[8]

Modern usage

The German/British design jerrycan is still a standard fuel and other liquids container in the armies of the NATO countries.

Finnish designer Eero Rislakki designed a plastic jerry can in 1970 with a small screwable stopper on the top side behind the handle to allow air flowing in to ensure smooth fuel outflow. It is lighter than the original design yet almost as sturdy. It was quickly adopted by the Finnish armed forces, and is commercially available.