125th anniversary of Rheinmetall – the years 1918 to 1935
From tractor to tank...
When media reported in 2011 that Rheinmetall Defence had booked an order to deliver a simulation-based training center to Russia, this caused quite a sensation. After all, Russia and the powerful Soviet Union had for many years been the enemy that needed to be deterred and fought with effective arms like the Leopard 2 main battle tank developed and manufactured with the involvement of Rheinmetall. The geopolitical crisis that we all know as the Cold War didn’t start in 1945 but has its origins in the final year of World War I. The October Revolution (1917), the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany and the formation of the Soviet Union had created a strong antagonism to the “bourgeoisie” states of the western hemisphere. These naturally included Germany where communist coups were successfully overcome in the early days of the Weimar Republic. Yet, Germany and the Soviet Union also had common interests. Moscow’s efforts to keep republican Germany out of the association of western powers were in keeping with the urgent desire of many Germans to annul the Treaty of Versailles (that was understood as a humiliation) – even if this involved help from the Soviets.
It was therefore hardly surprising that developing trade relations from 1921 onwards were beneficial to the German export industry. Even if there had been a realistic chance of an international trade agreement between the East and West, this ultimately failed in 1922 due to the lack of accord between England and France. For fear of one of the two parties reaching an agreement with the western powers, the Treaty of Rapallo was thereupon signed on 16th April 1922 by the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union Georgi Chicherin and his German counterpart Walther Rathenau.
This triggered a development that also involved Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik in Düsseldorf. Although no secret military agreement had been reached between the two states in Rapallo, the trade agreements nonetheless meant that the Soviet Union could receive military support from Germany while companies like Rheinmetall and Krupp were given the opportunity to test weapons and vehicles. The strict arms production ban under the Treaty of Versailles prohibited this in Germany.
The Kama tank school on the Volga River opened in the summer of 1929 was important for Rheinmetall. Both German and Russian soldiers were trained as drivers, radio-operators and gunners in tanks and combat vehicle crews were given tactical training there. The German permanent staff included technicians and engineers from Krupp and Rheinmetall.
Rheinmetall provided specially developed “large tractors” for the purpose. These were two 16 ton heavy vehicles equipped with 7.5cm cannons. The German Army Weapons Agency also gave development orders to Krupp and Daimler-Benz. Around 1927/1928 Rheinmetall and Krupp also received an order to develop tanks (under the cover name “light-weight tractors”) of the 9 ton category with an armour-piercing 3.7cm weapon.
Both the heavy and light-weight tractors delivered to Russia were declared as agricultural machinery in order to bypass the export ban under the Treaty of Versailles. This had been negotiated by none other than the Chief of the later Weapons Agency General a.D. Max Ludwig. It was Ludwig who proposed to the Foreign Office in Berlin that caterpillar tractors should be delivered to Russia – stating that these would serve as chassis for the tanks. “The tanks would then be further extended in Russia. This would warrant that the tanks really worked – and the delivery would not be in violation of the Versailles Treaty since caterpillar tractors could just as well be used for agricultural purposes.”
The six heavy tractors – two each from Rheinmetall, Krupp and Daimler-Benz – arrived at Kama in July 1929 and were tested from September onwards. Sadly, a tragedy occurred right at the beginning when Rheinmetall supervisor Kerres suffered fatal injuries during the first amphibian trial in the Kaban Lake on 30th October 1929. Trials in water were disbanded after the accident.
On 4th June 1930, Rheinmetall “light-weight tractors” with a 3.7cm cannon and a machine gun in a 360° rotating turret arrived at Kama. The performance of these vehicles was so good that they contributed significantly to the technical, tactical and firing training of personnel. Nonetheless, the “tractors” were plagued by various technical problems. Yet as the advancement of a tank with a front-mounted engine was no longer thought important, the fundamental elimination of technical problems was considered unnecessary. Instead, Rheinmetall and Krupp concentrated on the further development of the heavy tank at the command of the lieutenant colonel (and later lieutenant general) Heinz Guderian.
Rheinmetall was requested to develop a heavy tank referred to as the “new construction vehicle”. Rheinmetall engineer Jakob Engel who had worked in Kama recalled Rheinmetall building two vehicles – a tank and turret in mild steel. Although these were superior to the contender models from Krupp and Daimler-Benz, tank developments were to move in a different direction in the following years. Extremely heavy armoured vehicles with several turrets and large crews proved to be technically and tactically inappropriate in the course of the 1930s. Indeed, the multi-turret tanks from Rheinmetall were to be the last of their type ever to be built in Germany.
The tank school in Kama was closed on 15th September 1933 and the vehicles were returned to Germany via Leningrad and Szczecin after the seizure of power by Hitler’s national socialist party. The light-weight and heavy tractors were still used for training purposes at the tank firing school at Putlos for several years, after which they disappeared in the museums of several barracks.
Supervisory Board chairman opts for name change – Just a boyish prank?
Over the years, numerous prominent personalities have served on the Rheinmetall Supervisory Board, and some of these characters are swathed in mystery for some reason or other. One such person is Dr. Ing. H.c. Moritz von der Porten. Born in 1879 in Hamburg, he became one of the most important industrialists of the Weimar Republic.
As director general of Vereinigte Aluminiumwerke and Supervisory Board member of Vereinigte Industrie-Anlagen AG that held a majority stake in Rheinmetall, he chaired the Rheinmetall Supervisory Board between 1929 and 1932. Although von der Porten’s biography is fairly well recorded, nobody knows why he suddenly decided to change his first name. Interestingly, the Rheinmetall annual reports from 1931 onwards refer to Max von der Porten, and this is the name referenced in all documents relating to business history.
Only the archives of the Technical University of Brunswick have evidence of his original first name Moritz under which Brunswick University also awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1921. Oddly, the name change is not mentioned in any of the biographical writings. Nonetheless, there is no doubt whatsoever that it was always the same person – although his first name varied. Even before the national socialists came to power, von der Porten left Rheinmetall and served as an advisor for trade and industry to the Turkish government. He emigrated to the USA in 1940 and died in New York on September 6th, 1943 – under the name of Max and not Moritz.
Rheinmetall in Phantasialand
The roles were clear: as the puppet master, Richard Schmidt was the creative head; Gottfried Löffelhardt came from one of Europe’s biggest fairground families. Together, they dreamt of creating an American-style amusement park in Germany. No sooner said than done! The theme park for which Richard Schmidt had created the puppets opened its gates near the lake by Brühl not far from Cologne on April 30th, 1967.
Attractions included a vintage railway and a western express; a cable car crossing the lake was added at a later stage. From its humble beginnings, the leisure center has developed into an impressive 28 hectare amusement park called Phantasialand attracting around 1.75 million visitors each year – an impressive career for the former mining area. The lake is a relic from the open cast lignite mine that existed in the area. One of the companies that used to be actively involved in the mine was the present-day Rheinmetall AG. In 1920, Rheinmetall – known as Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik AG in those days – had acquired a majority stake in the factory Braunkohle- und Brikettfabrik Berggeist AG (established in 1908) in order to safeguard the power supply for its own steel works. Demand for the increasingly expensive fuel had risen in the wake of the industrialisation.
The open cast mining sector in the Rhineland flourished, but by 1965 the coal in the Berggeist mine had been extracted so that the mine was shut down. Rheinmetall itself had already divested its share in the mine around 1925 – the reasons for this are still not known. Two years after the shutdown, Schmidt and Löffelhardt transformed the Berggeist mine into an amusement park. In 1974, the first white-water ride was opened and turned out to be a true crowd-puller. Modernday visitors will hardly find a ride across rough waters exciting. What they want to see is the Temple of the Night Hawk or the Deep in Africa theme park with its inverted rollercoaster Black Mamba including terrifying twists and spectacular screws. In hindsight, it has always been an area of intense activity!
Rheinmetall management ends up in jail - Resistance to French occupation
The defeat of the German empire in World War I marked the beginning of the most difficult period in Rheinmetall’s history at the time: revolutionary activities and street fighting, strikes and company occupations by rioting workers were part of everyday life. The conditions of the Armistice Agreement and Treaty of Versailles prohibited arms production. The lifetime achievement of Heinrich Ehrhardt who had retired from “his” Rheinmetall as an old man in 1920 seemingly lay in ruins. He was only able to witness the beginnings of reconstruction from a distance at Zella-Mehlis.
At the time, Rheinmetall built locomotives, carriages and agricultural machinery. On 14th February 1920, the first carriage left the factory at Ulmenstrasse. Only four months later on 14th July, the first locomotive – the steam engine G10 for freight trains was delivered to the German-Reichsbahn. From 1922 onwards, Rheinmetall also built locomotives of the G12 series – the heaviest freight locomotive of the German Reichsbahn and the first German standard locomotive according to the annual report of the company. Although the order was lucrative, proper business development was impossible at the time. One event in particular has a big influence on the development of the company: the occupation of the Rhineland and the Ruhr region by Belgian and French troops on March 8th, 1921 due to inadequate proposals of the German government in conjunction with reparation demands.
Besides, the French wanted to take possession of the coal and ore mines in the Ruhr region. The Düsseldorf factory of Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik was one of the businesses occupied in the Rhineland. On May 9th, 1921, French troops marched into Plant V and occupied the site until September 16th. Riots and strikes were not common at the time because there was still a precarious level of normality between occupying troops, the Düsseldorf population and the industry during the early days of the French and Belgian occupation of Düsseldorf. However, this changed when the French and Belgians occupied the entire Ruhr region on January 11th, 1923 on the pretext that reparation payments were overdue.
As a locomotive and carriage manufacturer, Rheinmetall was important for the occupying troops since only a few days after the occupation of the Ruhr region, German railway workers joined a passive resistance at the behest of the German government and its Chancellor Cuno. The occupying powers thereupon tried to establish their own railway administration – the regie de chemins de fer de régions occupées, the so-called “Regiebahn”. For this, they needed their own locomotives and carriages and depended on support from Düsseldorf. However, like the management of the Düsseldorf welding works of Mannesmann, the Rheinmetall management refused to cooperate with the occupying forces.
The company newspaper of latter day Rheinmetall-Borsig describes how the French and Belgian troops tried to seize locomotives for the Franco-Belgian “Regiebahn”. “About a dozen finally assembled locomotives stood in the production hall, but as such acts of violence had been anticipated by the management, countermeasures had been taken: the gates were locked, the tracks and railroad switches had been destroyed and vital components removed from the machines and hidden.” Ultimately, troops forced their way into the plant on March 17th, 1923, brought the entire factory to a standstill and seized the locomotives, freight and tank carriages.
The two Rheinmetall management board members Hans Eltze and Hermann Potthoff were arrested on grounds of sabotage on March 23rd and April 19th, and imprisoned in the neighbouring Ulmer Höh where “they were joined by Krupp von Bohlen-Halbach and Schageter and his comrades.” Efficient production was impossible under the prevailing conditions. Production largely stood still, and the employees busied themselves with tidying up. The passive resistance ended in the summer of 1923, as a result of which the Rheinmetall workforce ended its strike on September 26th of the same year. In the annual report of that year, the management stated that “8,859 workers and civil servants in Derendorf and 1,855 in Rath entered into the new fabrication period”. The termination of passive resistance did, however, not mean that the occupation of individual parts of the company by the French and Belgian troops had also come to an end. Large parts of the Düsseldorf plant were supervised by French troops in the years 1924/1925. In fact, the occupiers didn’t leave until -August 6th, 1925.