Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2005/05/28

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Subject: [Leica] Leica manufacture during WW2
From: lrzeitlin at (Lawrence Zeitlin)
Date: Sat May 28 13:47:19 2005

A few years back I did some research into Leica manufacturing over the 
years. Here is an excerpt from the section on WW2.

During WW2 almost the entire output of Leitz/Wetzlar was taken by the 
German military services although a substantial number of civilian garb 
Leica IIIc cameras were made for foreign exchange purposes. The 
Luftwaffe Leica with its grey Vulcanite body was used by the Luftwaffe 
(of course) for reportage and not for gun cameras as popularly supposed. 
Other Leicas were supplied to German army (Leica HEER) and navy units. 
Some Leicas were even assembled out of spare parts in the US by 
Leitz/New York and supplied to the US military. Often these were fitted 
with a Wollensack lens. These cameras were all minor variations of the 
Leica IIIc. As the war progressed, German camera manufacturing quality 
gradually deteriorated as supplies became difficult to obtain and as 
skilled workers were transferred to militarily more important 
assignments. As reported in postwar documents, several precision Leitz 
machinists and toolmakers were assigned to the German atomic bomb 
project. The Leitz works in Wetzlar came under heavy allied air attack 
which further disrupted production quality.

The bombs missed the Leitz factory building itself. Apart from the fact 
that most of the windows were blown out, the machinery remained largely 
intact. There is a rumor that the misses were deliberate, General 
Eisenhower being reputed to be a Leica user, but more likely the misses, 
if ordered, were designed to spare an industry of negligible military 
significance which would be useful in post war reconstruction. When 
American troops occupied Wetzlar in 1945, a citizen delegation, headed 
by Dr. Elsie Leitz persuaded the Americans that there would be no 
resistance. The town surrendered without a shot being fired. Still, many 
of the skilled former Leitz employees had moved to other areas and would 
not return to the plant.

It was fortunate that the Leitz factory was located in the American Zone 
and that its machinery had not been destroyed or dismantled. Zeiss 
plants in the Russian Zone had been severely damaged and the Russians 
carted off what remained of the production equipment as war reparations. 
Zeiss, as a German competetor to Leitz, effectively ceased to exist for 
several years until reorganized in Stuttgart. This gave Leica an 
enormous postwar advantage. The Russians used the Zeiss machinery and 
tooling to produce the Kiev camera, a somewhat roughly constructed clone 
of the pre-WW2 Contax.

By mid 1945, only a few months after the occupation, Leitz was working 
at about 10% of prewar capacity. It received instrument repair contracts 
from the US Army to keep it afloat. About 150 Leica IIIc cameras a week 
were being made, mostly assembled from spare parts. The major customer 
was US Army Post Exchanges. That's not to suggest that the typical 
soldier was a Leicaphile. A Leica could be obtained in Germany for the 
equivalent of $20 in US cigarettes and would sell in New York for $600. 
The delivery to the States via G.I. mail was duty free.

Parts and materials were difficult to obtain in the post war era. Many 
of the tool suppliers were in the Russian Zone and their products were 
no longer available in Wetzlar. The alloys used in camera manufacture 
were different and took much longer to machine. Quality compromises were 
required in many camera components. Because of shortage of skilled 
workers, the cameras took more than 55 hours to assemble, more than 
double the prewar time.  The black market value of the Leica helped 
Leitz in its bidding for supplies. Vendors were paid off in finished 
Leica cameras. What the vendors did with their cameras was obviously of 
no concern to Leitz. Although Leitz tried to adhere to prewar standards, 
the quality of Leicas made between 1945 and 1947 was suspect. They were 
made primarily to generate cash, not to take pictures. That's not to say 
that all Leicas produced during this era were dogs. I have a 1946 Leica 
IIIc that functions superbly although an internal inspection shows 
significant differences in the fit and finish of some parts. It was 
obviously assembled of a mix of newly manufactured and older components.

Things returned to normal by 1948. Allied oversight of the factory ended 
and the postwar demand for civilian cameras provided enough income for 
the factory to exceed its prewar production levels. Quality matched or 
even exceeded that of prewar cameras. The crossover serial number for 
post war Leica IIIc cameras seems to be 450000. Those with lower numbers 
were made in the '45 thru '48 period and may be of more variable quality 
than those produced later. Civilian cameras with numbers below 400000 
were made prior to WW2 and often bring higher prices in the collector's 
market although there is no evidence that manufacturing quality exceeds 
that of cameras produced after 1948.

Larry Z

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