The jeep was perhaps the most versatile tool used in the Second World War. From special forces’ attack vehicles to ambulances and mess platforms, jeeps served in nearly every possible capacity. With more than 630,000 built during the war, it was also one of the most numerous vehicles made in that period; and despite its tendency to roll over, it was easily the best-loved. Although humble by comparison with tanks and combat aircraft, it was reliable and useful in nearly every situation; in a war decided in many respects by the quantity of equipment and the ease of its manufacture, the jeep stands among the greatest war-winners.
The mechanization of the US Army was still underway when the Second World War began. While tanks had been in use for some time, the Army had been reluctant to dispense with horses for other purposes. Indeed, it was not until 1940 that the Army took concrete steps to employ motor vehicles in all contexts. First, suitable vehicles were necessary, and with war seeming likely sooner rather than later, the Army produced specifications for trucks of various sizes. Among them was a light vehicle suitable for service as a “Command and Reconnaissance Truck.”
Three companies competed for the latter contract: Bantam Car Company, Ford Motor Company and Willys-Overland (generally known as Willys). Each produced a few thousand examples of its proposed vehicle, but it was the Willys “MA” that was chosen. Willys built nearly 19,000 MAs in 1941, but with neither party entirely satisfied, an updated version was created with the designation MB. The MB design endured for the remainder of the war.
The MB was a small vehicle, weighing just over 2,400 pounds; there was just enough room to carry four people, including the driver. Its four-cylinder engine was capable of delivering speeds of 65 miles per hour on paved surfaces, and off-road, it was still able to travel at 50 miles per hour. While this seems quite modest by contemporary civilian standards, it was exceptional in the military context; light tanks like the German Panzer II could only manage 12 miles per hour in an off-road setting. This kind of speed served the MB well in its reconnaissance role.
Its small size also served it well, presenting a limited target for enemy fire. With its windshield and canvas top in place, it was only six feet high, and this could be reduced to four feet, three inches by removing the top and lowering the windshield. Its width was five feet two, and it was eleven feet long.
The MB proved a highly satisfactory design; indeed, the major problem faced by Willys was its inability to produce the quantities desired by the Army. This problem was resolved by selling a license to Ford, under which Ford would produce additional vehicles according to the Willys’ design. Between the two companies, more than 630,000 jeeps were produced by the end of the war.
The origin of the term “jeep” remains subject to debate. The most probable explanation points to Ford’s designations. Ford’s candidate for the Army contract was called the GP, representing “General Purpose.” The GP was not selected by the Army for production, but then Ford purchased the license to produce MB vehicles on the Willys’ pattern; these were designated GPW. In any event, the word “jeep” was attached to these vehicles in colloquial use, despite the preference of the Army hierarchy, which wanted to call the four-man vehicle a “peep” instead. “Peep” was meant to signify reconnaissance, while another truck was to be given the name “jeep.” By the end of 1943, even Colonel Charles Black, who oversaw work with the new vehicles at Fort Knox, accepted the prevailing terminology.
Jeeps were not only used in the US Army; some were sent to Britain, Canada and the Soviet Union, where they also proved highly popular. Perhaps the most glamorous role for the jeep was given by the British, who equipped Special Air Service (SAS) units with some of the first jeeps that were available. SAS jeeps were reduced to the barest essentials, with even items like the windshield and the grill removed to permit the carrying of machine guns and ammunition, and eventually, a certain amount of armor protection. Dramatic accomplishments, such as the destruction of 88 Italian airplanes during two airfield raids in North Africa or an attack on SS vehicles at Les Ormes in France during the Normandy Campaign, were made by only a small number of jeep-mounted SAS personnel.
Far more jeeps served in comparatively mundane roles, including mail delivery, the replenishment of supplies, the evacuation of wounded personnel, and the transportation of small numbers of men. Of course, many were used as reconnaissance vehicles, and a common configuration included the mounting of a heavy machine gun in the center of the cab, high enough to fire over the windshield. Others served as mobile command posts; those intended to carry radio equipment were given a stronger electrical capacity, 12 volts instead of the usual 6. Jeeps were even light enough to be carried on gliders, and so they could be delivered into Landing Zones, giving airborne troops some much-needed mobility and carrying capacity.
By 1944, with the western Allies fighting in France and Italy, jeeps could be considered ubiquitous in Europe. The organizational structure of a US tank destroyer battalion serves as a good example. Each of the nine standard platoons of the battalion included a jeep, as well as the four M36 tank destroyers and two armored cars that constituted the bulk of the battalion. An additional company of three platoons served as the reconnaissance arm of the battalion; each of these platoons had three jeeps and a single armored car.
The jeep’s main flaw was its high center of gravity. It could easily tip over when going too quickly around a corner, and without even the roll bars of modern civilian jeeps, there was nothing to stand between the heads and necks of all personnel and the surface of the ground. Accidents of this sort resulted in a large number of losses.
Despite this danger, the jeep remained very popular, and after the war, discharged servicemen often made a point of purchasing decommissioned jeeps for their private use, especially when they lived in rural areas and could benefit from its off-road performance. The jeep became the original sport utility vehicle, and when military surplus was no longer sufficient for civilian demand, consumer versions were produced. Nor was the jeep’s military role at an end in 1945; it continued to serve until the 1960’s, when it was supplanted by an updated vehicle that no longer bore the name, but still carried a strong resemblance. Furthermore, the original Land Rover vehicle, built in 1948, was made from jeep parts.
Victory in war is secured by the combination of many different elements. Some items, like the P-51 Mustang fighter or the Soviet T-34 tank, offered such clear advantages that they are called “war-winners,” but in the end, they could not win the war by themselves. The jeep is perhaps the outstanding example of the power of simpler contributors. Wherever the Allied armies went in World War II, jeeps went with them, serving countless needs along the way.
Halberstadt, Hans. Military Vehicles: From World War I to the Present. Sterling, 1998
Ludeke, Alexander. Weapons of World War II. Parragon, 2007
Porter, David. The Essential Vehicle Identification Guide: Western Allied Tanks, 1939-45. Amber, 2009
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