To commemorate Black History Month, FreightWaves Classics profiles the Red Ball Express, which was manned primarily by Black soldiers.
FreightWaves thanks each man and woman, of all races and creeds, who has served in and is serving in the armed forces of the United States of America.
This is the fourth article in a four-part series about the fabled Red Ball Express, which supplied the American armies racing through France to fight and/or capture the retreating German armies.
Pursuing the German Wehrmacht
Invasion planners and logisticians forecast many of the issues that would face the Allied armies once they landed on the Normandy beaches (June 6, 1944). In regard to the German forces, the Allied commanders and logisticians forecast that the Germans would ultimately begin to retreat in a slow, organized fashion at some point. However, after the Allies fought their way out of the Normandy hedgerows in late July 1944, the Germans began to retreat much more rapidly.
Because the German armies behaved differently than the Allied planners had forecast they would, the Red Ball Express – which was not part of the Allied logistical pre-planning – was needed.
From the logistics and supply chain perspective, the turning point of the invasion and subsequent pursuit of the Germans occurred during the week of August 20-26. Forward units of the American First and Third Armies were engaged in rapid pursuit of retreating German units.
The pursuit used great quantities of fuel – the American tanks and support vehicles used more gasoline during that week than had been used in any previous week. The average amount of gas consumed was over 800,000 gallons daily! On August 24, the First Army used 782,000 gallons of fuel. On August 25, Allied forces reached the River Seine and U.S. And French troops entered Paris, liberating the City of Light.
Allied commanders decided to cross the Seine and continue pursuing the Germans eastward toward Germany. This continued pursuit took place without waiting for a fully developed supply chain or lines of communication.
General Omar N. Bradley stated on August 27, “The [American] armies will go as far as practicable and then wait until the supply system in rear will permit further advance.” After crossing the Seine, forward divisions of the First and Third Armies extended their lines, and also fanned out, which created a front line that was twice as broad as it had been previously. The strain on the Army’s supply chain was immediate; deliveries slowed precipitously. Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle termed the operations in late August/early September as “a tactician’s hell and a quartermaster’s purgatory.”
The American armies had outrun their supply chain; they had to make do with the supplies on-hand, what they could find or capture for several days. The vast majority (90 to 95%) of Allied supplies were still in depots near the invasion beachheads and being shipped from England across the English Channel. The American First Army and the Third Army had pursued the retreating German armies more than 300 miles in one month – a tremendous feat, but one that the logisticians were unprepared for. The lack of a working supply chain became more critical daily as the armies continued to move further from where the supplies were located.
It was the desperate need for supplies that led to the creation of the Red Ball Express.
Circumstances provided for little advance planning or preparation. As one observer said, the Red Ball was “largely an impromptu affair.” The Express started its runs on August 25; 67 truck companies ran its restricted route from St. Lo to Chartres. Just four days later 132 companies (nearly 6,000 vehicles) were transporting needed supplies to near the front lines.
Originally, the Express was scheduled to operate only until September 5; instead, it continued through mid-November. The Red Ball Express and all the support units that helped it operate allowed the Corps of Engineers and others to repair the railroads, port facilities and pipelines. The Allied push into Germany could not have happened without it.
“…the Red Ball Express drivers played a major role in liberating Europe during World War II,” said National Headquarters Executive Director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Barry Jesinoski. “These brave men literally carried the load on behalf of men of different races despite their segregation. It’s a story that isn’t told enough, and DAV is proud of the contributions to freedom, liberty and humanity made by the men of the Red Ball Express.”
“Red Ball Express” was the name given to one of World War II’s most massive logistics operations. A fleet of thousands of trucks and trailers delivered over 412,000 tons of ammunition, food and fuel to the Allied armies in the European Theater of Operations between August 25 and November 16, 1944. About 75% of the U.S. troops involved in the Red Ball Express were Black.
At its peak, the Red Ball Express operated nearly 6,000 trucks, each carrying about 6 tons of supplies daily. Because of the wear and tear on the trucks, about 1,500 vehicles were being repaired daily as well. About 900 fully loaded Red Ball Express trucks were driven along the route, which at its longest took 54 hours to drive round-trip.
A British infantry brigade commander wrote, “Few who saw them will ever forget the enthusiasm of the Negro drivers, hell-bent whatever the risk, to get Gen. Patton his supplies.”
While the original plan for the Red Ball Express was for it to last just two weeks, it lasted over 80 days, delivering needed supplies to the ever-advancing Allied armies. It was stopped for two major reasons.
The first was that Allies had captured ports that could handle larger ships carrying supplies. In addition, portable fuel pipelines were built by Allied engineers to transfer fuel from the supply ships to on-shore depots. In addition, the Allies had sufficiently repaired the French railway system so that they could use it to carry supplies. (This was the same rail system the Allies had successfully bombed to keep the Germans from resupplying their troops.) Also, the heavy-duty tractor-trailers that had not been ferried across the English Channel soon after the invasion were finally delivered to France and put to work.
Secondly, when the Red Ball Express began, it carried supplies from the Allies’ Normandy beachhead to relatively close American armies. But Gen. George Patton’s Third Army and Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First Army kept advancing, chasing the retreating German armies across France, further and further from Normandy. When the Red Ball Express was shut down, it was using almost as much fuel to carry supplies to the American armies as it was delivering. The law of diminishing returns had kicked in…
Some 20 years after the end of World War II, Colonel John S.D. Eisenhower, a European Theater of Operations veteran and son of the supreme Allied commander in Europe, wrote: “The spectacular nature of the advance [through France] was due in as great a measure to the men who drove the Red Ball trucks as to those who drove the tanks.” He also wrote, “Without it [the Red Ball] the advance across France could not have been made.”
During the period it was in operation, the Red Ball Express helped equip the American armies pursuing the German armies as they retreated toward their country’s border. By delivering critically needed supplies, the Red Ball Express helped to save American and European lives and shorten the European war.
Here are links to the previous three articles on the Red Ball Express:
Information for this series of articles came from a number of sources and articles written over the decades about the Red Ball Express. Quotes attributed to members of the Red Ball Express and other World War II service members were taken from an article on HistoryNet written by David P. Colley.
In addition to the numerous in-depth articles about the Red Ball Express, there are hundreds of photos available online. Explore these, and learn more about the brave men and women who served our nation in World War II. In addition, museums like the National World War II Museum and the Army Transportation Museum (to name just two) have fascinating exhibits about the Red Ball Express and other military operations.