The Humble Jerry Can

In Articles, Technical by Glyn Demmer3 Comments

As off-roaders we so often carry extra fuel to extend or range and as a reserve supply in a steel or plastic container which we loosely refer to as a “Jerry Can”, but where did the name come from and how did it evolve?

Well let’s go back to World War 2 and none other than Adolf Hitler, whilst planning for his blitzkrieg invasion of Europe he became acutely aware of the need to support massive Tanks and vehicles on the move with small containers of fuel that could be easily carried and poured and as such ordered his engineers to design suitable containers for this purpose.

As a result of his foresight the German Army had thousands of Jerry Cans ready for use when hostilities commenced. Developed as a top secret project the Jerry Can was and still is a unique piece of design, the flat sides and rectangular shape with the 3 handles on top made it easy to store and a single troop could carry two at a time and pass them on to a line of troops, fire brigade style. The two halved welded construction was much like that of a typical car fuel tank of the day, capacity was around 20 litres (as it is today) although we now get smaller 5 and 10 litre derivatives as well as plastic containers. Typically today we use yellow cans for diesel and green for petrol.

The air chamber at the top of the can will allow a full unit to float in water if dropped which from a military perspective was essential. The air breather part of the spout facilitates smooth pouring and the snap closing device with retention clip and the gasket make it leak proof.

Early in 1939 an American engineer Paul Pleiss did a trip in India with a German engineer, needing additional fuel the German secured a few Jerry Cans which they used, when hostilities commenced the German returned home and Pleiss shipped the car to America and submitted a can to the Military for evaluation, the War Department at the time opted to use old canisters for fuel which were a WW1 design.

The Americans eventually produced a poor copy of the Jerry Can, which did not perform well, and it is estimated that large quantities of fuel were lost to leakage and evaporation, in fact the American cans used in planes and on the ground were hazardous and compromised many an operation. Pleiss lent a second sample to the British Army who had already encountered and named it in Europe, the British soldiers referred to the Germans as “Jerries” hence the name Jerry Can.

For some time the Americans continued with their own cans whilst the British commenced production of the cans for use in North Africa – the British success in this theater of the war was largely due to the mobility provided by the humble Jerry Can. Eventually the Allied forces agreed that the British should produce the cans required for the invasion of Europe, it is estimated that by the close of the war there were around 21 million allied Jerry Cans in Europe. President Roosevelt even credited the success of the Allied invasion to the humble container-it enabled the forces to cut across Europe at a rapid pace.

As fuel is considered to be hazardous various specifications have been set for the Jerry Cans such as the TUV and UN specification as well as the American Military Specification known as MIL-C-1283. There are additional safety requirements covered in some countries by burn specifications.

These specifitations cover the design and performance of containers used for storing and transporting hazardous goods.It is interesting to note that even the indentations stamped into the sides of the cans serve a purpose adding ridgity to the sheetmetal and extending the surface area to allow for expansion and contraction of the contents when hot or cold condition occur.All in all the humble device that we so easily take for granted has a long history and some incredible design criteria that still work for us today,long after the war.

Originally the can was designed with a spout that allowed one to easily fill military vehicles,nowadays we use an adaptor or funnel as modern fillers are recessed into the body of a vehicle. Although the colour codes do apply it is also a good practice to add a decal to your cans to ensure that they are correctly filled at service stations or if you lend them to friends.And lastly never use a can that has had fuel in it for water.

About the Author

Glyn Demmer

My first 4x4 was a Nissan Hardbody thereafter I started travelling all over the country. In 1992 we held a big 4x4 day with hundreds of Nissan families, and then the 4x4 bug really bit. A friend Monty Brett and I started running 4x4 courses at the Hennops Off-road Trail just outside of Johannesburg. At first we offered day-and-a-half courses that started on Friday afternoon and finished on Saturday afternoon. Hannes Grobler the Rally Ace regularly assisted, and we reached a nice balance between our two styles and our skills.

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