The Union Recorder


September 14, 2013

RICHARDSON: How tractor engineering lost World War II

MILLEDGEVILLE — As an old history teacher I’m always on the lookout for events that changed the course of our country and world. I ran across one from a surprising source the other day and this story will chronicle that event as best I can. Be patient and follow along closely so as not to get lost in the details.

I have sworn under oath in this space that fixing stuff is not my cup of tea but I have a natural affinity for actually using weed eaters and tractors. I’m the Picasso of trimming tall grass and can play a Beethoven symphony on a tractor if the job is bush hogging or plowing. Just give me a good old Super C Farmall or a 4020 John Deere that is in working order and I am a serious artist. Now I’m not very nifty with a harvester or combine but, hey, this isn’t Nebraska.


Not too long ago my task of the day was to mow our dove field in preparation for the season’s opening. I headed to the field full of exuberance and confidence in my ability to get it done in a timely and artful fashion. When I arrived on the scene our bush hog was attached to a tractor that was unfamiliar to me. It was big and green but was not a John Deere. Nonetheless I forged ahead and vaulted up on the behemoth unafraid of the challenge. It was then that the first problem occurred. I could not figure out how to crank the dad blasted thing. It was an embarrassing moment for the King of Tractordom.

I called Daddy up on the cell phone and he proceeded to tell me that it was a German made tractor. In fact he said it was one of the finest models they had ever built. He then attempted to tell me how to get it going. OK, got it cranked. Next problem was that I couldn’t make it move forward. Pretty basic necessity if I was to accomplish my task. Called Daddy back and he then talked me through a litany of things I needed to know in order to get going. Problem was it was more like a nuclear launch code in complexity.

Turns out the contraption had two buttons that had to be mashed simultaneously to get the choke going, separate knobs for throttles number one and two, two other gizmos to control the front and rear hydraulic systems, a couple of other levers to engage the power take-off, and as a bonus it had a front end loader attached to a leaky hydraulic system.

I was in trouble.

An hour later it lurched forward and I started around the field. Unfortunately I was so worried about all the buttons that I failed to notice the front end loader as it slowly made its way toward the ground (leaky hydraulics). That oversight resulted in the bucket digging into Mother Earth and jolting me to a sudden stop. That was the end of the day for me and this paragon of German engineering.

Now we go back to the history lesson. I am quite sure that in the mid-1940s the common German soldier had a similar grasp of tractors as I do today. I am also sure that some of those guys were assigned the duty of moving all sorts of important war materials around warehouses and through the soggy countryside by using these super-engineered machines.

I can just see the problem developing. The top brass has ordered massive shipments of bullets, guns, and food to the front lines for a key frontal assault on the American army. The poor tractor drivers can’t get their engine going and they keep leaking hydraulic fluid that ultimately causes a catastrophic shortage of supplies on the front line. This eventually leads to the loss of major battles for lack of logistical support. And World War II is lost because the common soldier could not get his launch codes worked out in time to save the day.

Just think about it. If those tractor-driving warriors been supplied with a Farmall or John Deere we might well have lost the war.

I now have an alternative history lesson with which to regale our social studies students and the moral of that story is that if that was the best tractor in history it’s a wonder any war was ever won by those who built it.

Alvin Richardson can be reached at

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