Willys-Overland delivered its first prototype of a general purpose transport vehicle to the Army in 1940.
After a few modifications, the Willys "Jeep" entered full time service during World War II. Considered rugged and reliable, the Jeep was eventually used by every Allied country in every theatre of war. By the end of the conflict, over 300,000 Jeeps had been built. The Jeep served a variety of duties, including basic transport, ambulance service, mobile weapons platform and supply truck.
The British SAS made particular use of heavily armed Jeeps in many of its clandestine operations behind enemy lines. This included raids they carried out on German airfields in North Africa, and later operations against the German transportation system in Northwest Europe.
History of the Jeep
Just how important was this simple vehicle on four wheels for our soldiers? From what we know about its history, this small unassuming runabout was thought to be one of the important tools needed to win the Second World War. Those who share that belief include famed generals Dwight Eisenhower, George S. Patton and renowned British leader Winston Churchill.
It gave allied soldiers the simple yet crucial ability to quickly move about whether it was to carry troops, transport equipment or ferry the wounded from the front lines, among many other uses. As a testament to its importance to modern warfare, it was the immediate successor to the horse for the Allies for the Second World War, the latter having served armies for thousands of years before.
The vintage military Jeep, also known as the Willys Jeep in acknowledgement of one of the companies that produced it, was born out of a time of desperation for the US Army. At the outbreak of the war in Europe, Americans were beginning to realize they were years behind the aggressive modernization of the German land forces under Hitler.
German tanks, personnel carriers and other mechanized transports were state of the art, allowing their armies to bowl over the opposition in the first years of the war. This new generation of fighting vehicles also included something small and incredibly versatile for troop transport: the Kubelwagen, or "the bucket car."
The US Army believed it needed a Kubelwagen of its own, and given the urgency, it invited 135 automobile companies in the country to bid for the military contract while giving them only 50 days to design and build a prototype. Ultimately, only three companies stepped forward: a diminutive car company called American Bantam and two larger manufacturers; Willys-Overland and more notably the Ford Motor Co.
Bantam made up for the scarce resources it could spare for R and D with sheer ingenuity. It cobbled together parts scavenged from anywhere they could and also from other models produced by the company, and built a prototype that simply awed its reviewers. It was simple, very utilitarian for soldiers and extremely rugged – the latter a crucial aspect if it were to serve under the rigours of combat.
Though small and lightweight, it had the strength of a mule. Powered by a 134 cubic inch four-cylinder engine rated at 60 hp, it could tow roughly half of its own weight. It also featured four wheel drive which was very advanced at the time. As the attack on Pearl Harbour plunged the US into the war in 1941, the Jeep became an integral part of the American army’s operations when Ford and Willys-Overland were given an order for 63,000 units not even a month after war was declared.
The rest, as they say, was history. The Jeep was present on every theatre of war for the Americans, but it wasn’t always a humble workhorse behind the scenes. Its exploits include daring raids conducted by an elite group of British commandos in Africa, one of the earliest units of the modern SAS, on German units and bases under the command of famed German general Erwin Rommel.
Also, following the D-Day landings in Normandy, thousands of American, British and Canadian Jeeps helped make an immense effort to resupply rapidly advancing tanks as they fought their way inland from the beaches.
Suffice to say, the Jeep was much loved by the soldiers who used them. After the war, as if they had developed a bond with their trusted mount, returning GIs wanted to own them in civilian life. Willys-Overland capitalized on this demand and popularized the design by creating different versions of the military vehicle adapted for civilian use. There were "convertibles," work trucks and family vehicles, and the latter became the first iterations of the modern SUV.
The Jeep went on to serve again in combat in the Korean War as well as the Vietnam War, and was finally retired thereafter. As the demands of the US army grew in terms of capability, size and payload, a new vehicle was developed as the operational and spiritual successor of the venerable Jeep: the "Humvee."
But for the 30 or so odd years of its service in the American military from which it originated, the Jeep became a icon not because it was ubiquitous in military displays and war movies, but because it was simply the most dependable and versatile vehicle that moved our soldiers when they needed it most.