This year (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 FreudeWagens 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.
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