The years of 1945 to 1949, when the British military ran Wolfsburg, were more crucial than many enthusiasts appreciate

2019 marked 70 years since Volkswagen was handed back to the German people by the British Army. You may think we’ve got our arithmetic slightly wrong there because surely VW set out on its own when Heinz Nordhoff became its boss at the beginning of 1948? However, it really was in 1949, on October 8 to be exact, that the British Military Government, established after WW2 to return some order to the defeated and ruined country it controlled, transferred trusteeship of Volkswagenwerk GmbH to the Federal Republic of Germany. The civilian West German state had only been formed itself a few months previously and passed on the responsibility for VW’s administration to the regional Lower Saxony authorities. The company would remain nationalised until privatisation in 1960.

Remains of the day

Major Ivan Hirst, of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), is the man now most associated with saving the immediate post-war Volkswagen and pointing it down the path to success so that, come 1949, there was something to go back to the German people. While his contribution should never be underestimated, he was a cog – albeit a pretty significant one – in a much bigger machine that transformed what was a bombed-out factory, constructing an “ugly, bizarre, noisy and flimsy,” car with unfortunate Third Reich links and considered worthless by many, into a solid industrial concern with a bright economic future.

It was in June 1945 that the British took over Wolfsburg – or Stadt des Kraft durch Freude-Wagens bei Fallersleben (City of the Strength Through Joy Car at Fallersleben) as it was then – from the Americans who had liberated it in April. With it came what was left of the Volkswagen factory. It was inoperative, with around 60 per cent of it demolished by bombing, extensive flooding and a hungry, demoralised and rapidly shrinking workforce. There seemed little future – in fact, a British delegation that visited recommended it be completely dismantled. Initially though, a REME workshop was set up within the remains, to repair British Army vehicles. In August, Major Hirst was put in charge of this. His bosses were Major John MacGregor, in charge of motor vehicle production for Lower Saxony, and Colonel Charles Radclyffe, who had this jurisdiction for the entire British zone of occupation. Whatever Hirst may have wanted to achieve with Wolfsburg – as the town and factory were rapidly renamed – he couldn’t have managed it without the co-operation and approval of those above him in the command chain.

Following orders

And then there was Colonel Michael McEvoy. He oversaw all the REME workshops in Germany, and saw Wolfsburg as the ideal opportunity to start building desperately-needed vehicles for the military. That he was a motoring enthusiast himself, and had also been impressed by a Volkswagen he saw on display in Berlin at 1939’s International Automobile Exhibition, meant he had a positive view of the car even if others didn’t. He and Hirst hatched a plan; the junior officer found the best VW he could, had it painted khaki green, and sent it to the British headquarters at Bad Oeynhausen. There, McEvoy, the senior officer, presented it to the top brass as something that could be easily (and cheaply) manufactured to keep the Army mobile. The powers-that-be agreed, and on August 22, 1945, an order was placed for 20,000 Volkswagen saloons, 500 vans with 500 trailers for the post office, and a further 200 trailers for the British forces.

It was this that immediately saved the factory; it gave it a purpose again. There was also an agreement that it would be protected from dismantling for four years – which would dictate how long REME would be in charge. Hirst, and the soldiers and staff he was managing, had until 1949 to make a go of things.

Now we’re motoring

On December 27, proper Volkswagen Beetle production began again – the gap between the placing of the order and Type 1s being bolted together taken up with getting the factory into some sort of decent, semi-functioning order again, as well as building the post office vans. Some of these were based on wartime Kübelwagens, others on saloons with the rear passenger section replaced by a very big box. By the end of the year, just 55 new Beetles had rolled down Wolfsburg’s ramshackle production lines, although they were joined by 345 of the Type 51 models, with a Beetle saloon body plonked on a raised ground clearance Kübelwagen chassis, giving them the appearance of being on stilts.

The target for January 1946 production was 4000 vehicles. That didn’t happen by quite a big margin; the total was 83, of which just five were Type 1 Beetle saloons, 71 were the Type 51 jacked-up versions and seven were vans. But after that, despite food, raw materials and component shortages, things began to stabilise, with production ramping up to 842 Type 1s in February and then over a thousand – 1001, to be precise – in March. Similar numbers were recorded during the following months.

Sales success

Gradually, the orders started to roll in. The German civil authorities such as the post office, police and Red Cross acquired Volkswagens, as did the American and French forces. Even the Russians bought some. As the months progressed, Allied staff were allowed to buy the cars and, eventually, a few cars were made available for civilians. Wolfsburg began to take on the semblance of a proper car factory again, even if it had a very limited market.

While all this was going on, the factory was being rebuilt, new staff were being taken on, and steady supplies of materials, machines and tools to keep production going were being sourced. While the Volkswagen plant wasn’t completely safe – for example, during 1946, there was a plan to move everything to Australia, but the four-year reserve stymied this idea – its existence was nowhere near as perilous as just a year before.

In a report by Volkswagen’s technical management team in October 1947, the operating conditions at Wolfsburg were described as having gone from being ‘provisional and incomplete’ to a ‘constant form’. In other words, it had become a viable company again. There were even thoughts about developing and expanding the range. During 1946, two convertible Beetles had been completed; one a quite conventional four-seater based on pre-war designs, the other a more radical two-seater with modified bodywork that would inspire the Hebmüller cabriolet. There was even a four-wheel drive Beetle, using the drive system of the wartime Schwimmwagen. An order for 100 of these was placed by the French authorities, who saw them as useful for forestry work, but it was never fulfilled as the 4WD tooling had been destroyed after the war.

Special export

As production outstripped orders from authorities, thoughts turned to private sales and exports. A dealership network began to be set up from October 1946. During summer 1947, the first Beetles left Germany destined for sale in another country, courtesy of Dutch vehicle dealer Ben Pon. Granted, just five made the first cross-border journey to Holland – it should have been six, but one broke down before it had even left the factory – but a further 51 followed before the year was out, with exports to Switzerland, Belgium and Sweden beginning in 1948.

What was becoming obvious was that Wolfsburg, and the Volkswagens it produced, had a perhaps unexpectedly bright future. Not just within the narrow and restricted marketplace of being sold to military and civilian authorities, but in the wider, commercial world. And, if that was the case, it wasn’t really the job of the REME to run it. The appointment of Heinz Nordhoff as general manager, to run VW from January 1, 1948, was an acknowledgement of this; that British Army control was drawing to a close. A political decision had also recently been taken in the UK that Germany should start standing on its own feet again, rather than be financially supported by the victorious Allies, further reinforcing the sense that the REME era was almost up. But that didn’t happen for almost another two years.

Taking the glory

There is something of a myth that, when Nordhoff joined Volkswagen, he more or less single-handedly transformed the company into the hugely successful operation of the 1950s onwards. It was more a legend he perpetuated himself; for example in a speech he gave in 1954 he said: “On January 1st 1948, I took on the management of the Volkswagen Works. I was faced with a desolate heap of rubble, a horde of desperate people, the torso of a deserted town – an amorphous mass which had never had any organising principle, no factory organisation in a real sense, without a programme or any rational work organisation. So something new had to be created because there was nothing there and had never been anything to build on at all.”

The reality is that when Nordhoff was appointed, most of the hard work to get Volkswagen back on its feet again had already been done. As Hirst himself noted: “I think you could have put anybody in there, even a monkey, and it would have been a success. There was a huge factory, a labour force, a building, a good management already in place, a car that would sell, huge demand all over the world for light cars and it could not fail even if you put the biggest fool you could find in charge, it would have still worked.” As clever, ingenious and visionary as Nordhoff was, he built on already solid foundations, rather than start from almost nothing, as has been the perception.

So while Nordhoff took important steps such as ramping up production, opening up new international markets and green-lighting the Transporter as a second Volkswagen model, it was still against the backdrop of British control, albeit now much in the background as Nordhoff consolidated his power.

Ivan Hirst left Wolfsburg during summer 1949. Then came Decree 202, the act that transferred trusteeship of Volkswagen back to the West German people. The signing of that (by Hirst’s boss, Colonel Radclyffe), on October 8, 1949, officially brought the British involvement with Wolfsburg to an end. While Nordhoff ran VW, it’s fair to say that the role of REME was played down, but after his death, the company began to more fully acknowledge just how crucial the years 1945 to 1949 were in its survival. That continues to this day – the 70th anniversary of the handover was marked both by VW and REME at its HQ in Wiltshire, and British Army officers were also invited to a commemorative meeting at Wolfsburg. The press release that accompanied the commemorations stressed the significance: “As a company under British military management, Volkswagenwerk was able to take a pole position from which it was able to start immediately in Germany’s nascent automobile society and to become a symbol of West German reconstruction and the German economic miracle.”

Words: Richard Gunn

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