75 years ago, from June 5, 1945, the British entered their zone of occupation and replaced US troops. The British military government took over the trusteeship over the Volkswagenwerk GmbH in Wolfsburg. This starts a unique post-war story. The key figure is 28-year-old Major Ivan Hirst. With improvisation skills, talent for organization and enormous foresight, he forms the armaments factory, which has been largely destroyed and is intended for dismantling, into a civil vehicle factory. In this way, the British set the course for the future worldwide success of the Beetle and lay the foundation for the Volkswagen Group today. Volkswagen honors the time of the British with the documentary “My job was clear”, in which Ivan Hirst talks about his time at Volkswagen.
Documentary film “My job was clear”
Volkswagen Heritage is now taking the 75th anniversary of the takeover of the British trusteeship as an opportunity to publish the half-hour film “My job was clear” for educational, research and media work on YouTube. Five episodes documentary, the decisive upheaval phase at Volkswagen after the Second World War. In one of his last interviews, Ivan Hirst talks about the British trusteeship of the Wolfsburg company from 1945 to 1949. The interview was done in autumn 1999, exactly 50 years after the Volkswagenwerk GmbH was returned to Germany.
“In the beginning,” says Ivan Hirst of his Volkswagen story, “my task was clear: go to Wolfsburg, find the factory and occupy it. I was not even told that it was Volkswagen. ”The major arrived in Wolfsburg in August 1945 and took good leave four years later, in August 1949. “We had a modern factory, ready for the future: with a workforce, German management and a good product,” said Hirst. “And after the currency reform in 1948, things started: Volkswagen starts into the world.”
The British factory: Volkswagen between 1945 and 1949
Crew and trusteeship
At the end of the Second World War, Volkswagenwerk GmbH lost its owner because the NS organization Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front) no longer existed. The plant, designed by the National Socialists as a model factory for the construction of the KdF car, produced military goods with around 20,000 forced laborers during the Second World War. As a former armaments factory, the plant is to be dismantled after the end of the war. But first the Americans set up a repair shop in the factory after the liberation. When the British entered their zone of occupation in June 1945 and became trustees of Volkswagenwerk GmbH, they sent 28-year-old Major Ivan Hirst to Wolfsburg. As a senior resident officer, he takes responsibility and quickly realizes that the factory offers much more than workshops for a repair shop.
A large part of the machines and tools intended for civil production were outsourced during the war and are being retrieved. The damage to the halls is considerable, but repairable and civil production of the Volkswagen sedan seems possible. The economy in Germany is idle. There is poverty and a lack of supplies, traffic routes have been destroyed and means of transport are lacking. Hirst realizes that economical automobile manufacturing would help solve the British Army’s transport bottlenecks. Over time, it also shows that this solution is in line with British policy on Germany,
Large order with grace period
Colonel Michael McEvoy, the manager of Ivan Hirst, supports the start of civil production in Wolfsburg. McEvoy had already seen the Volkswagen sedan at the Berlin International Motor Show in 1939. To convince the British military government, he presents a vehicle at headquarters that Hirst had previously found on the factory premises and painted khaki. On August 22, 1945, the military government placed an order for the British military administration for 20,000 vehicles, followed two weeks later by a second order for a further 20,000 vehicles. This means a grace period of four years for the factory to be dismantled. The first civilian vehicle left the factory on December 27, 1945.
Setup and restart
The factory needs to be repaired first, a process that continues even after manufacturing begins. Materials and raw materials such as steel, batteries, textiles and glass are extremely scarce in post-war Germany. Hirst is assigned by the British military administration with negotiating skills. Scarce, but enough to bring production to a monthly target of 1,000 vehicles – this was achieved for the first time in March 1946. The Volkswagen plant has only a small regular workforce, so recruiting is another challenge. Hirst is pragmatic and also offers jobs to German prisoners of war. The supply of workers remains extremely difficult during the first few years. Hirst improvises and obtains urgently needed groceries through contacts. The first freely elected works council was formed in October 1945 – an important step towards democratization for the British. First of all, employee representation ensures that the shortage is fairly distributed.
Denazification leads to the dismissal of the previous plant manager, the lawyer Dr. Herrmann Münch replaced him in June 1946. As General Director, he drives production forward together with a commercial and a technical director.
After these organizational innovations, the British improved the quality of the vehicles and production processes, trained customer service staff and started to set up a trade organization. They are so successful that Volkswagen begins exporting in October 1947. In 1948, 19,000 vehicles left the factory, around a quarter of which were destined for export. At the same time, the production of spare parts for the growing service network begins. The good future prospects cause the trustees to transfer the management to an expert and give the company a German responsibility.
On January 1, 1948, Heinrich Nordhoff began as General Director of Volkswagenwerk GmbH. Three years after the end of the war, the Volkswagen plant developed from an armaments ruin to an automobile factory with 8,700 employees. Working and living conditions in Wolfsburg are improving steadily, but the situation in Germany is still characterized by shortages. The decisive turning point came on June 20, 1948 with the currency reform, which triggered an economic boom in the three western occupation zones and gave Volkswagen an additional boost. Everything is going in the right direction for Ivan Hirst. On October 8, 1949, the British military government transferred the trusteeship for Volkswagenwerk GmbH to German responsibility.