The “Leica” Camera in 1946: Report by British inspectors
“The Leitz factory is a well-run, happy organisation, this being due in no small measure to the family nature of the business and to its importance in the neighbourhood. Discipline is strict without being severe and one gets the impression of great interest by employees of every grade in the work being performed.”
This is the start of the conclusion of a report on the Leitz factory prepared in late 1946 following an inspection of the factory by the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee. A team, of four, Messrs. Big, Cantle, Tyler and Sturrock, investigated the Leitz works on the 19th, 21st and 22nd of November that year. They were greeted by Herr Ernst Leitz (Senior), the chairman, Herr Ludwig Leitz, technical director and Herr Dumar, the commercial director. Plus, “various members of the technical staff of E.Leitz”.
It seems that a jolly good time was had by all: “We received every help and courtesy from these persons and a considerable amount of assistance from Dr. Dumar.”
In late 1946, just 19 months after the capitulation of Germany, Wetzlar was under US administration as part of the American zone of western Germany. A systematic investigation of German industry was undertaken by the Allies, ostensibly to estimate the period of rebuilding necessary following the conflict. To some extent, also, there was the opportunity to acquire German know-how for use domestically, if not the chance to acquire assets at bargain-basement prices. In some cases whole factories were taken over lock, stock and barrel.
This was highlighted in the case of Volkswagen, which could easily have ended up as a British company since Wolfsburg was in the British sector. Famously, the factory was offered to Britain as war reparations. And notoriously, a delegation led by Sir William Rootes, head of the Rootes Motor company, decided that Volkswagen was “not worth the money”. He is reported to have maintained that the Beetle was “too ugly and too noisy.” We all know the outcome of all that. Rootes Who? you might well be asking.
No such shenanigans were seen in Wetzlar as is evident from the even-handed report by the British investigators. They fully recognised the world-wide reputation of the German manufacturer and looked forward to the factory continuing to rebuilt its place in the world. The 1946 report’s conclusions continue:
“The pride in workmanship and the just pride all have in their world-wide reputation for quality work is the permeating spirit of the place and helps greatly to offset apathy caused by the present dismal state of the country.
“The products coming from the Leitz works are equal to any turned out before the war although in some cases the finish is inferior due to poor materials, especially paints and enamels.
“The team came away with the impression that the Leica camera is still worth of its pre-eminent position and that the skill of the craftsmen is very much in evidence in the Leitz factory.”
The Roneod¹ report (which was published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office at a cost of two shillings or 10p in new money) goes into considerable detail about the factory buildings and the products:
“The Leitz Company is now producing only the Model III C Leia Camera, this having, by development, superseded the Model III B. The Model III C differs from the III B in several aspects, although it is functionally similar. It is approximately 1/8” longer, it has an integral top plate and range finder cover, and the main body is now a single pressure die casting, which together with two other pressure die castings for the top and bottom of the unit forms a complete chassis for the assembly of all the other component parts. In the later models the focal place shutter blinds have been fitted with ball bearings.”
The report speaks highly of the Leitz craftsmanship, although production per employee in 1946 was running at only 50-60% of prewar levels, which the authors of the report attributed to “re-action from War, insufficient food and lack of purchaseable goods.”
Production methods are discussed in detail, including assembly of components and the precise method of obtaining the satin finish on the bodies. It’s all fascinating stuff but too detailed to recount in this article. But see the bottom of the page for a link to a scan of the full report.
There is, however, a fascinating discourse on labour costs. In 1939 there had been 5,000 employees and the workforce had been halved by 1946. The authors state that “it was very noticeable that men between the ages of 20 and 40 were very few, a fact which of course is attributable to the War. Of the Leitz employees who were in the fighting forces 400 were killed and 300 are still prisoners of war.”
Wage rates were practically the same as before the war and were considered low by then British standards. They weren’t kidding. A skilled male employee earned 1.72 pfennigs a minute or RM 1.03 an hour while an unskilled labourer netted 72 pfennigs an hour.
It is difficult to work out precisely what that meant in relation to Allied currencies at the time. Up to the last years of the war the exchange rate against the pound had been maintained around Rm 11 to one pound. This was also the generally understood rate for the Deutschmark for much of the 1950s and early 1960s. However, between the latter years of the war and the introduction of the Deutschmark in 1948 there was rampant inflation and to a large extent barter took over — the so-called cigarette economy. The introduction of the DM stopped inflation in its tracks and, to a great degree, was the catalyst for Germany’s subsequent Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).
I discovered that the official military rate of exchange for the Reichsmark in 1946 was 40 to the British pound and 10 to the US dollar. That was almost certainly a poor reflection of value on the street, but it still meant that a skilled craftsman could expect 4p an hour and a labourer a miserly 1.8p. I suspect things have changed a bit at the Leica factory.
Camera prices are another area of interest for the investigators. The price of the III C and 5cm f/3.5 Elmar kit was said to be 40% higher than it had been at the outbreak of war. According to the investigators’ report the retail price of this kit in 1946 was RM 546.60. Using the military rate, that means the camera and lens would have cost an attractive £14, about three or four week’s wages for a working man in Britain at the time.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. I asked my German colleague, Claus Sassenberg for his views. He thinks the quoted RM546 selling price must have been pure fantasy, perhaps an exercise in political correctness or, even, wishful thinking. No one would have been able to buy a Leica for Reichsmarks at the time so the list prices was purely academic.
For the reasons outlined above, as well as official restrictions, Leica cameras were in short supply. Of the monthly output of 1,100 units, 89% was reserved for American forces, 6% for French forces and 5% for German sales. A small proportion of the American quota was “available for British forces in exchange for Rolleiflex cameras” although I wonder where the Rolleis came from. Shortages continued for some years and imports to Britain were heavily restructed. According to my friend Don Morley, he had to apply for a permit to import a Leica III G into Britain in the mid fifties. Only photographers with a demonstrable business need could hope to get an import permit.
All in all, this is a compelling document which makes gripping reading for any Leica enthusiast. It’s encouraging to know that, despite the privations, the Leitz factory was a “well-run, happy organisation.” I wonder what the verdict would have been if they’d instead sent Lord Rootes to ferret through the drawings at Wetzlar?
The full report has been scanned, albeit in a hurry and using an iPhone. You can see the full document here. The quality is rather poor and there are several spectacular misalignments, but the text is all legible. When I get the opportunity I will do some more tidy scans.
I am grateful to Ivor Cooper of Red Dot Cameras for allowing me to borrow the 1946 report from his collection of old Leica documents.
¹ Roneo was one of the two main brands of stencil duplicator prior to the invention of the photocopier. The other contender was Gestetner. Pages were typed onto a special oiled sheet (the stencil) while the typewriter ribbon was inactivated. The type cut through the skin and later, when it was placed on the drum of the Roneo or Gestetner, ink inside the drum would permeate through the holes created by the type and create a facsimile on paper. Happy days, messy ink days!
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