From the iconic Jeep to the ubiquitous Sherman, Allied forces depended upon the vehicles that American assembly lines produced. Both cursed and revered by those who depended on them, these “hunks of metal” were often named and even attributed with human-like qualities. Many, like the Jeep, became ensconced in popular culture. These vehicles were an integral part of daily life in World War II—often making the difference between life and death for the troops they served.
World War II, a global conflict that lasted from 1939-45, was among the most far-reaching conflicts in history. The war spanned six continents, involved more than 30 countries, and introduced new weapons and machinery. Nations pushed their best scientific minds to their limits designing and manufacturing equipment for troop and supply transport. The United States alone raised hundreds of millions of dollars through bond campaigns to fund the war effort. Unlike in previous wars, when horsepower was the main means of transport, military vehicles became a key part of the fight to capture territory, supplies, and enemy soldiers. Whether in the air or on the ground, the cars, tanks, and airplanes used during World War II had a great impact on a nation’s ability to successfully campaign against the enemy. As these quotes show the importance of oil for all forms of vehicles:
“He who owns the oil will own the world, for he will rule the sea by means of the heavy oils, the air by means of the ultra-refined oils, and the land by means of gasoline and the illuminating oils. “ -- Henri Berenger, French diplomat, 1921
“No matter how well fed, equipped, or officered, without oil and gasoline the modern army is a hopeless monster, mire and marked for destruction.“ -- T.H. Vail Motter, U.S. Army Historian
“The primary cause of our failure was a shortage of fuel. “ -- General Paul von Kleist, Commander, Panzer Forces, Army Group A in Russia
“Our ships sailed on water, but they moved on oil, and the demand never ceased.“ -- Rear Admiral W.R. Carter, U.S.N.
Beans, Bullets and Black Oil T“he raids of the Allied air fleets on the German fuel supply installations were the most important of the combined factors which brought about the collapse of Germany.“ -- General Adolf Galland Commander, German Fighter Force
“A plentiful and reliable supply of petroleum products was probably the single most vital factor in establishing Allied logistical superiority over the German Army.“ -- The Quartermaster Corps
“It was a war begun as a fight for oil and ended by the lack of it.“ -- Asahi Shimbun, on the Allied victory in the Pacific in World War II
“God was on the side of the nation that had the oil.“ -- Professor Wakimura, Tokyo Imperial University
“To fight, we must have oil for our machine. “ -- Adolph Hitler
“The war was decided by engines and octane.“ -- Joseph Stalin, referring to the outcome of World War II
The National World War II Museum
World War II CarsIf you’ve ever owned a Jeep, you’ve gotten a piece of military history. Though the jeep has been in the civilian world for more than 70 years, it was initially designed as a military transport. At the beginning of World War II, many countries still used horses and wagons to move troops and supplies, including Germany. The United Kingdom was the only nation that entered the war with a full complement of military vehicles, including the Guy armoured car and the Bison concrete armored lorry. The United States soon followed Britain’s lead when it came to the use of military vehicles and stopped using horses before entering the war. In 1940, the U.S. Army solicited bids for automakers to design a light reconnaissance vehicle that would later become the jeep. These vehicles moved soldiers and supplies over some of the most difficult terrain in Europe and Asia and demonstrated the superiority of modern vehicles over traditional transports in warfare. Both the Axis and Allied powers used jeeps, whether built or captured, for troop and supply transport.
World War II Trucks
Along with the jeep, trucks played a vital role in troop transport, maintaining supply lines and serving as fire engines. Most of the trucks were supplied by GMC, which built more than 500,000 2½-ton 6×6 trucks from 1940 to 1945. This truck, dubbed the “deuce-and-a-half” by soldiers, was sturdy like a Jeep, but its larger size allowed it to transport more troops and supplies. The deuce-and-a-half also carried tons of gasoline to the front lines, enabling Allied forces to continue to advance without fear of running out of fuel. Germany, still dependent on horsepower at the beginning of the conflict, was unprepared for the speed with which the Allied forces could move troops and supplies. Though they attempted to quickly assemble mechanized transports, they often ran out of gas, which left German troops open to Allied attacks.
World War II Tanks
Tanks first appeared during World War I and quickly proved their worth in battle. A modern take on ancient siege engines, tanks protected troops and served as mobile artillery units, while their all-terrain mobility made them ideal for going over ground impassable to trucks or jeeps. That every country that fought in World War II had tank regiments speaks to their effectiveness. Smaller, lightweight tanks scouted locations for troop movement in enemy territory, while heavier models transported key military personnel in safety. The United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and Germany had the most advanced tanks during the war. The American M-4, known as the Sherman, with its moveable turret and 75 mm cannon, was lightly armored and maneuverable and saw action in every theater of World War II. Other notable tanks from this era include Germany’s Tiger II and Panzer tanks, Britain’s Churchill Crocodiles, and the Soviet T-34.
World War II Aircraft
Aerial warfare existed well before World War II. Hot air balloons were used for propaganda distribution and reconnaissance as early as the Napoleonic Wars, and planes performed aerial bombardments during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12. In the years leading up to World War II, advancements in aircraft brought aerial warfare to new heights and illustrated the importance of maintaining air superiority. The Messerschmitts used by the Luftwaffe, the German Army’s aerial warfare branch, were integral to its early victories during the Polish Campaign, the invasion of Norway, and the Battle of France. Allied military aircraft like the British Spitfire and Hurricane gained near-mythic status after seeing action at Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain and helped turn the tide of the war. Japan’s B5Ns, Zeros, and D3As were used at Pearl Harbor in 1941 in the attack that officially pulled the United States into the global conflict. American planes like the P-51 Mustang and P-38 Lightning were instrumental as fighters as well as long-distance escort planes. The P-38 Lightning was so feared by the Luftwaffe that it earned the nickname “Fork-Tailed Devil.”
Additional World War II History Resources on Vehicles