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The cutest military utility vehicle

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An M29 Weasel at a D-Day anniversary celebration in Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy (Photo: Author’s own)

There is a number of well-known American utility vehicles used in World War II. Many military enthusiasts know the iconic Jeep (Read our earlier article – The Jeep) or the DUKW (Read our earlier article – the American “duck”), but there is another lesser-known vehicle that made G.I.s life easier on the frontlines: the M29 Weasel. In this article, you will learn about the cargo carrier that was never used in its intended role. Based on the idea of a strange Englishman and built by the Studebaker automobile manufacturer, it was used extensively for many other tasks in armed conflicts and civilian service even decades after WWII.
 
The idea of the vehicle stems from the eccentric English scientist, Geoffrey Pyke who worked for the Combined Operations Headquarters led by Lord Mountbatten (Read our earlier article – Lord Mountbatten). The organization’s main purpose was to harass occupying German forces with raids which included also using revolutionary methods and equipment. Pyke was known as a genius of difficult personality who never wore socks. He was somewhat obsessed with ice and snow. He was the mastermind behind Project Habakukk, the idea of building huge aircraft carriers from a mix of ice and wood pulp (called pykrete). He committed suicide shortly after the war in 1948.

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The inventor behind the idea of the Weasel, Geoffrey Pyke (Photo: State Library of Victoria)

The idea of the Weasel came during the preparations for a raid, codenamed Operation Plough, against vital German facilities including hydro-electric power plants producing heavy water necessary for nuclear bombs in Norway. The special winter and mountain warfare unit created for the operation was the joint Canadian-American 1st Special Service Force (FSSF, also known as “Black Devils” as nicknamed by the Germans). In addition to their special training, they were equipped with special weaponry, such as the V-42 fighting knife developed from the Fairbairn-Sykes knife of the British commandos (Read our earlier article – The Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife) and the M1941 Johnson light machine gun. They needed a small vehicle that could carry their equipment while moving easily in the snow, it also had to be able to be parachuted into the designated area. As opposed to Pyke’s idea, the final model ended up as a tracked vehicle instead of being driven by Archimedean screw pumps. Eventually, the operation got cancelled but the new vehicle was ready for further assignments.

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The T15 prototype in a trial (Photo: studebaker-weasel.com)

The first prototypes were named T15, the final design was designated M29 Weasel cargo carrier. It weighed 1.8 tons and had a maximum speed of 36 mph (58 km/h). The SSF used it in other theaters for instance the Aleutian Islands, Italy, and the landings in southern France (Read our earlier article – Operation Dragoon). In addition to the FSSF, other Allied units used it in other operations such as the D-Day landings, the Battle of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and during the crossing of the Rhine. The U.S. Marine Corps used them extensively in the fight for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where it’s capability to cross loose sand came in handy.

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A Weasel trying to rescue a Jeep from deep mud in the Hürtgen forest in 1944 (Photo: tanks-encyclopedia.com)

Due to their versatility and cross-country capability, they could be used in a myriad of roles. In addition to their intended role in snow, they could get supplies to the troops on the frontline even among other difficult conditions such as mud and sand, where wheeled vehicles could not take their cargo. They could also tow artillery pieces and trailers or be used as infantry carrier, ambulance, command and communications centers or signal cable layer. It could even get other vehicles that got stuck in mud. Due to its low ground pressure, it was not only able to traverse soft ground but also to cross anti-tank minefields, but it could still trigger anti-personnel mines. The Weasel could accommodate up to three passengers plus the driver, with the passengers sitting in a row of seats in the back. The M29 had a few variants, the main variant being the M29C Water Weasel which had improved amphibious capabilities through pontoons attached to the hull. Despite the improvements, it was still slow and did not allow for seaborne landings. Our readers with more interest in technical details can read the original technical manual of the Weasel by clicking on this link.

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Two M29C Water Weasels and a Jeep in mud in a trial (Photo: arsof-history.org)

Variants A, B and C were armed with different weapons, like the M20 recoilless rifle, but were essentially of the same design. Many of the weasels had machine guns mounted on them, including also the .30 cal Browning M1919 (Read our earlier article - The .30 cal Browning). There were also prototypes which were fitted with a mine-clearing device or a flamethrower. In these versions, the driver was overly exposed to exploding ordnance or enemy fire (on top of that the driver was sitting on top of the petrol containers on the flamethrower version).

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An M29 prototype with a mine-clearing device (Photo: keymilitary.com)

 
Of course, the design did not come without problems. Some of them had reliability issues. On long movements in hot weather, Weasels tended to overheat. Sometimes, even the oil boiled out of the radiators and the transmission. Originally designed for snowy terrain, paved road was also not the vehicle’s natural environment and several of its parts broke.
 
At the same time, it was not only the American forces which used this vehicle. For instance, British and Canadian troops used the amphibian Water Weasels of the British 79th Armored Division, which was known for its special vehicles (Read our earlier article – Hobart’s Funnies), during the last stage of the Battle of the Scheldt when they captured the Walcheren Island in November 1944. They continued to rely on their all-terrain capabilities in the Netherlands and all the way up to the end of the war in Germany. The Canadians were not unfamiliar with the Weasel since they have been using them in joint operations with the Americans on the Aleutian Islands against the Japanese in 1943. Using the same vehicles facilitated the interoperability of the two Allied armies. It is worth mentioning that the Germans had their own unique utility vehicle, the Kettenkrad, which was a half-tracked vehicle with a single motorcycle wheel at the front (Read our earlier article – The Kettenkrad).

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A Kettenkrad towing a truck from the mud on the Eastern Front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Following WWII, many of them were sold in the 50s to civilians and other Western countries like France, Sweden, and Norway. Weasels saw service in several other armed conflicts, for instance the Korean War and the French-Vietnamese Indochina War between 1946-1954. They were even used during the Olympic Winter Games in the U.S. in 1960. Others proved useful in polar expeditions of several nations. The French used them until 1993 at the Dumont d'Urville Station in Antarctica.

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A slightly modified Weasel at the French Dumont d'Urville Station in Antarctica (Photo: Dargaud, Wikipedia)

Some of them are in museums and many others are still in private hands. If you want to see a real M29 Weasel, join us on our tours which either visit the Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom or Bastogne Barracks in Belgium. If you are lucky, maybe you can even see one on one of our D-Day anniversary tours during the celebrations.

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A Weasel at Bastogne Barracks in Belgium (Photo: Author’s own)
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