Jerricans

An object that fascinated me while in military service was the Jerrican.  This 20 Litre can was used for storage of fuel and lubricants and at times for water.  As a young officer in 1984, it was the time of Operation Meghdoot when India gained dominance in Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield. In the glacier, kerosene is the lifeline and was delivered in jerrycans by helicopters to various posts. The cost of each jerrycan with its precious contents can well be calculated with each helicopter sortie ferrying about 10 jerrycans. It must be the costliest fuel in the world!!

Jerricans get their name from the Germans who invented them. The original steel fuel cans (Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister, in German for Armed Forces Unit Canister) were a huge improvement over the square cans used by Allied Forces.  These jerrycans were easier to carry, easier to pour and more durable.

The term ‘Jerry,’ is a slang term for Germans used by Allied forces. In preparation for the war, the Germans had thousands of jerricans in stock and they effectively used them during the war. In 1942 the British Army in North Africa captured some of these cans from the Germans. These cans were sent to England, where they were soon reverse-engineered and put into production. 

In preparation for the war, Hitler came up with a novel idea of holding a design competition for the slickest can for carriage of fuel and water.  Hitler realised the need to keep his men and machines effectively lubricated and hydrated.  He also knew how critical a smoother, more efficient way to move fuel and water would be to win the war.

Vinzenz Grünvogel, chief engineer with the firm Müller of Schwelm, is credited with devising the winning can.  This simple looking can has more to the design than meets the eye.  Developed under the utmost secrecy, the jerrycan featured flat sides that were rectangular in shape and was made in two halves that were welded together like an automobile fuel tank.

It had three handles, which allowed it to be easily passed from one man to another.  The handles were designed in a way of enabling four empty cans to be carried by one person using the outside handles, or two full cans using the middle handle.

An air chamber at the top ensured buoyancy and a short spout which was secured by a snap cover and could be popped open for pouring, eliminating the need for a funnel. A gasket made the mouth leak-proof.  An air-breathing tube from the spout to the air space facilitated easy and smooth pouring.

The design ensured that it was easy to make, easy to handle, easy to stack, easy to transport, durable, and efficient. 20 liters capacity made it easy to calculate bulk amounts.

The two flat sides of the can were stamped with a large X shape, providing better strength and ability to weather changing temperatures, along with the gas volume fluctuations that came with them.  It facilitated up to five jerrycans to be stacked in a row.

The Allied forces used containers nicknamed flimsies. It was made of light-gauge sheet metal pieces poorly welded together. They were a hassle to carry and ruptured quite easily.  The flimsies required a wrench to open, a spout to pour and a funnel to receive the liquid.

There is an Indian connection to the jerrycans landing in Washington. Paul Pleiss, an American engineer who worked in Berlin, persuaded his German colleague to join him on a vacation trip overland to India by car. As they prepared to leave on their journey, they realised that they had no provision for emergency water. The German engineer took three jerrycans stored at Tempelhof Airport and mounted them on the underside of the car.

When the two were halfway across to India, Field Marshal Goering sent a plane to take the German engineer back home. Before departing, the engineer gave Pleiss complete specifications for the jerrycan’s manufacture. Pleiss continued alone to Calcutta where he put the car in storage and returned to Philadelphia.

Back in the US, Pleiss told military officials about the container, but without a sample can, he could stir no interest.  The risk involved in having the cans removed from the car and shipped from Calcutta seemed too great, so he eventually had the complete vehicle shipped.  It arrived in New York in the summer of 1940 with the three jerrycans intact. Pleiss immediately sent one of the cans to Washington. The War Department looked at it but unwisely decided that an updated version of their container would be good enough.

As the Americans did not listen to Pleiss, the British showed keen interest as they were scavenging all the jerrycans they could.  Pleiss got the second of his three jerrycans flown to London. The British immediately reverse engineered the jerrycan and commenced production on a war footing.

Meanwhile, the US was using flimsies with slight modifications to the previous versions, but they still leaked and exploded and required a wrench to open and a funnel to pour.

It was reported that 40 percent of fuel was lost in transport because of the cans. It raised an alarm and the flimsies were scrapped as the US conceded production to Britain, which by 1944 had set up many factories manufacturing jerrycans out in the tens of millions.

In 1944, President Roosevelt stated that “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.

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Benjamin Franklin included a version of this proverb, preceded by the words, A little neglect may breed great mischief, in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1758.

During World War II, this verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London to remind everyone the importance of seemingly trivial repair
parts and inventory replenishment.

Reasonable Reasons

We attended the Junior Command Course at Mhow, India in 1993 and after the course went to our home at Kottayam, Kerala for a month’s vacation. In those days, we travelled on vacation by train and the journey took over 48 hours and two train changes at the most awkward hours of night.  You can imagine my plight with Marina and our two-year daughter Nidhi in tow, with paraphernalia of assorted baggage – in all sizes and shapes.

We reached home and my next ordeal was to get a return reservation from Kottayam to Delhi and onward to Jammu.  During summers, the seats in the trains from Kerala to anywhere in the country were lapped up the moment the reservation counters opened on the exact 60th day before the date of journey.  The only option for me was to contact our Member of Parliament, Mr Suresh Kurup, who always obliged with his emergency quota.  Mr. Kurup is well known for his soft corner and respect for all soldiers.

Armed with the allotment of Emergency Quota and my Warrant (Military form authorising travel by Indian Railways,) I reached Kottayam railway station.  At the reservation counter the booking clerk refused to book the seats – Why?  Our Regimental clerk had committed a grave sin!! He spelt KoTTayam with one T.

I contacted the Station Master and the Reservation Supervisor.  All expressed both sympathy and empathy a soldier deserved, but the cardinal sin of spelling KoTTayam with only one T, they could not condone.

While at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Tamizh Nadu, our nearest railway station (NRS) was Udumalaipettai – with one P and two Ts. In Thamizh and Hindi, it has two Ps, but in English only one – Any reasonable reasons?

 The town was known amongst the locals as (உடுமலை) Udumalai and all the buses boards read so.  The British called it Udumalpet and that too caught on, but no one ever used Udumalipettai, other than the Indian Railways and some Military clerk sitting in the remote border, preparing a warrant for a soldier from Udumalpet – counting the Ps and Ts.

When we filled our application for the National Defence Academy (NDA,) our teachers insisted that we spelt Udumalaipettai with the correct number of Ps and Ts as the Indian Railways insisted.

To return to the Regiment on time, the only option to me was to buy two tickets and claim the cost later from the Comptroller Defence Accounts (CDA.) I requested the Reservation Supervisor to block the seats until I either got a fresh warrant or bought the tickets by paying cash. He agreed saying that he got to finalise the reservation chart two days before the date of journey.  

I shot off a letter to our Adjutant, narrating my agony.  Major Ranjan Deb (now a Veteran Colonel,) an Aviator with an uncanny sense of humour was in chair and he despatched a soldier to Kottayam with a fresh warrant with two Ts for KoTTayam. Unfortunately, the soldier could reach Kottayam a day prior to my journey and by that time, I had to buy the tickets by paying cash.

On reaching the Regiment stationed in Jammu & Kashmir, I sent the forms for claiming the cost of the tickets to CDA, explaining the reasons as to why I had to buy the railway tickets by paying cash.  The reasons I stated appeared beyond reasonable doubt to the powers at the CDA, but how can they allow such a claim without raising any objection?  It will go against the ethos of the Accounts Department anywhere in India. 

My claim was approved in principle, but the CDA raised a query “How did the Officer and his wife make the onward journey from Jammu Tawi to Kottayam?”

Beyond reasonable doubt, Major Ranjan Deb promptly replied “By walking.”  In a week’s time my bank account was credited with full reimbursement for the cost of tickets.

Now let us fast forward to 2016.  Our family is in Canada – Marina, Nidhi, Nikhil and myself – all Canadian citizens. 

Nikhil decided to travel to Kolkata to serve in Mother Teresa’s Ashram for a month.  I said to him “If you find time, visit Veteran Colonel Ranjan Deb, our Regimental Officer who lives in Barrackpore.”  I had narrated many incidents about Colonel Deb, especially when he was our Battery Commander with 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River.) 

On a Wednesday, when Nikhil had a day off from Mother Theresa’s Ashram, he took a cab to Barrackpore.  Colonel Deb and Nikhil spend a day together and at the end of it Colonel Deb remarked “Reji, I spent a few hours with Nikhil. I was amazed at his all-round development at his age. No Indian student will be able to match up with Nikhil’s thought process. His education in Canada stands out distinctly. I am 63 and he is 19 years of age. I did not get bored for even a second of the six hrs we were together. Healthy engrossing discussion.

This is what is called Regimental spirit.  A kid, not born – why – not even planned while we served together, comes all the way from Canada to meet us – a Veteran Colonel and his wife.  What else can we ask for in life?  What other recognition do we need? He made our day!!”