None of the major armies of World War 2 (1939-1945) was complete without specialized vehicles to fulfill equally-specialized battlefield roles. One class of vehicle critical to the expansion of Hitler's Germany was the amphibious vehicle - designed to traverse land routes as normal but also able to clear bodies of water with little difficulty. Several projects were pushed ahead in this regard with one of their most iconic products becoming the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen - the "Swimming Car".
Volkswagen was already producing its famous "Beetle" automobile for civilian consumption and from this design was born the militarized "Kubelwagen" for the Wehrmacht. During the prototype stages of the Kubelwagen came along the Type 86 and it was this foundation that was to serve in the upcoming Schwimmwagen design. Development originally centered on delivery of a compact amphibian for airborne use.
The basic Kubelwagen was heavily revised, the hull of a more stocky, bulbous shape with float chambers built in. Like the Kubelwagen, the new vehicle held its engine at the rear and seating was for four with two in front and two at rear (ahead of the engine compartment). A three-spoked steering wheel sat at the driver's position (front-left) and basic gauges made up the instrument panel. Rounded headlamps sat high on the car's forward section to provide low-light level visibility while also clearing water levels when crossing. Slim tires provided the needed all-terrain capability and a spare was typically set over the hood of the car. The front windshield was hinged to fold down over the hood and a soft top could be erected for protection against the elements from the rear.
The engine was a 4-cylinder air-cooled system outputting at 25 horsepower and mated to a four-speed transmission system. Four wheel drive capability was only available in the first gear. A locking rear differential assisted the vehicle in pulling itself out of muddy terrain. Waterborne propulsion came from a single propeller unit set at the rear of the car and resided on a swing arm. This unit was lowered prior to water entry to align itself with the drive chain. Steering in water was simply through the driver's wheel which controlled the angle of the two front wheels as rudders. More precise steering was made available through onboard paddles - useful if requiring that the vehicle be turned around, an action not easily accomplished by management of the wheels alone.
The original design was designated "Type 128" and this form was based highly on the Army Kubelwagen. Its wheelbase measured 7.9 feet and the hull was welded. In practice, this design proved too fragile for military service and was therefore limited to only preproduction forms. A revised model with a 6.6 foot wheelbase, an monobody from Ambi-Budd, improved transmission system, and other refinements then took its place as the "Type 166" - the definitive serial production model of the war. The prototype Type 166 was tested in March of 1942 and, upon completing their evaluation phase, it was hurriedly pushed into production to which some 100 were available by the end of June 1942.
Primary manufacture of Schwimmwagens was from Volkswagen which managed 14,276 through its Wolfsburg plant and a further 1,308 units came from Porsche of Stuttgart. Total production was 15,584 from the period of 1942 to 1944 when manufacture of the car ceased.
Upon their entry into the war, Schwimmwagens were used along all major fronts by the Germans but featured more extensively at the East Front where its amphibious quality was useful across the long stretches of boggy terrain and network of rivers leading to Moscow. These vehicles were used in conjunction with other light-class, high speed systems like the classic motorcycle/sidecar elements as reconnaissance platforms, command cars, and message runners. The vehicles proved compact enough to not require any special attention in mass transport and could traverse a plethora of terrain types on their own. The vehicles proved so popular that demand from the Army was high throughout their service tenure in the war.
Beyond personal weapons carried by the crew, some Schwimmwagens were equipped with a 7.92mm MG34 GPMG along the right side of the windscreen (at the passenger's position) for some self-defense firepower - against both infantry and low-flying aircraft. There were onboard stow areas for service rifles, submachine guns, and Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons as needed - though overall space was decidedly cramped when already seating four passengers. Armor protection was non-existent so operators needed to be very aware of their traveling environment.
Besides their use in Europe, the Schwimmwagens also proved popular with the Germans fighting in North Africa where their all-terrain qualities shown through. General Rommel requested Schwimmwagens be delivered to the theater in number but these demands were not met as most were committed to the East Front for better application. Production was also under constant threat from Allied bombardment which disrupted overall availability of the machines for periods of time. Schwimmwagens were also a favorite for conquering enemy forces as much as for the Germans - Allied soldiers key to take rides in these cars when possible. The Schwimmwagen managed a wartime popularity akin to the famous German Luger pistol - though they were not as easy to sneak home for American G.I.s.