|ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: The image at left is from the U. S. Postal Service first-day cover (issued June 6, 1994) commemorating the Red Ball Express (part of the series "1944: Road to Victory"). The original painting, which depicts a black GI trucker, is by Chris Calle. The truck at right is a "deuce-and-a-half" (a 2.5-ton truck), the workhorse of the Transportation Corps. The photo at the upper right (a larger version appears below) shows Corporal Charles H. Johnson of the 783rd Military Police Battalion waving on a Red Ball Express motor convoy rushing priority materiel to the forward areas, near Alenon, France. [ This page is dedicated to a former trucker in Battery B of the 225th, Clarence ("Chris") Ketterman. ]|
The Red Ball Express was the codename for one of World War II's most massive logisitics operations, namely a fleet of over 6,000 trucks and trailers that delivered over 412,000 tons of ammunition, food, and fuel (and then some!) to the Allied armies in the ETO between August 25 and November 16, 1944. For the 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion, which was a semi-mobile outfit, being a "Red Ball" trucker meant that you were charged with driving battalion trucks to the Red Ball depots and picking up supplies, especially gasoline and ammo, and then ferrying them back to the 225th's positions at forward airfields along the West Wall. Though you didn't make the long hauls from Normandy into eastern France and Belgium, you kept the battalion supplied as a last, vital hop in the supply chain.|
The introduction of motorized vehicles and
equipment at the beginning of the 20th Century has changed forever the face of
battle. Since the time of Alexander the Great large armies have crossed the world's
military landscape with ponderous difficulty, their seemingly endless lines of
animal-drawn carts and wagons trailing far behind. How different this is from the pace and
dimension of modern warfare.
The highly mechanized U. S. Army of WW II had the ability to cover vast distances at
speeds unimagined by even the greatest of the Great Captains of old. That speed brought
with it a need for new forms of fuel in prodigious amounts to keep the engines of war
running. Quartermasters who for centuries gathered huge stockpiles of hay, barley, and oats
to "fuel" past armies on the move, were now required to supply the petroleum, oil
and lubricants (POL) that make up the U.S. Army's logistical lifeblood.
The Army had begun serious experimentation with gasoline-driven trucks
and automobiles as early as 1911. In 1916, during the "Punitive Expedition" to
Mexico, trucks were first used in a tactical setting by American troops abroad.
When the United States declared war on Germany the following year,
Pershing took hundreds of motorized vehicles and equipment with him to France. This action
spawned a huge, new appetite for POL.
Though the fighting on the Western Front was relatively static, petroleum
played a decisive role. It was, according to Clemenceau, "as necessary as
blood." The French expression "le sang rouge de guerre" "the red blood of war," captures the
significance of gasoline in modern war fighting. Said Churchill afterwards, we (the
Allies) floated to victory "on a sea of oil." All told, the American
Expeditionary Force consumed nearly 40 million gallons of gasoline in World War I. This
was an immense amount for the time, a mere fraction of what it would take to defeat
Hitler's Germany a generation later.
World War II was the first truly mechanized war, or as one observer put
it, a "100 percent internal combustion engine war." It placed unprecedented
demand on Army Quartermasters for POL support around the world. Even the relatively small
North African campaign of (code-named Operation TORCH) required no less than 10 million
gallons of gasoline. Allied logisticians pushed the red stuff forward over the beaches and
across parched deserts using five-gallon "blitz" cans, tanker trucks, and miles of
newly designed portable pipelines. This experience, coupled with the Sicilian and Italian
campaigns that followed, served as a warm-up for the Normandy Invasion of June1944.
The cross-channel invasion known as Operation OVERLORD followed months
of intensive preparation. During that time Allied logisticians in England worked out a
detailed plan for POL support on the continent. All vehicles in the assault were to arrive
on the beachhead with full tanks, carrying extra gasoline in five-gallon jerricans. Packaged
distribution was to continue throughout the operation's initial phase (D-Day to D+41).
Planners predicted a fairly slow-paced offensive thereafter, allowing for systematic
construction of base, intermediate, and forward area depots. In the meantime, it was hoped
that the early capture and development of Cherbourg's port facilities (by around D + 15)
would enable combat engineers to begin laying three six-inch pipelines inland toward Paris.
Much depended upon the success of this operation. Pipelines were
expected to eventually move about 90 percent of all POL entering the European Theater
quickly and efficiently to forward area terminals or transfer points. Operation OVERLORD
was officially scheduled to terminate on D + 90 with the forward line hopefully anchored
on the banks of the Seine. The post-OVERLORD period (D + 91 to D + 360) would have the
Army pushing steadily eastward to the Rhine, where it was assumed a final showdown would
take place. From start to finish, planners expected well-placed bulk maintenance
facilities to carry the lion's share of POL support.
On D-Day itself events occurred much as planned from a POL perspective.
The first assault vehicles rolled ashore and immediately began stacking their cargoes of
five-gallon cans. They were placed in small, widely scattered dump sites throughout the
lodgment area. This simple method of open storage made Class III supply easily accessible.
At the same time, this storage method rendered Class III supplies less vulnerable to enemy
attack. By the end of the first week (D + 6) Quartermaster petroleum supply companies were
on hand to begin moving these stores away from Omaha beach as the buildup continued.
German defenders fought tenaciously but failed to turn back the Allied
assault. By the end of June, the beachhead had expanded considerably. Allied combat units
were rushing headlong in the infamous hedgerows some 25 miles beyond to engage in a
bloody slugfest that lasted several weeks. The Allies' inability to score a quick
breakthrough anywhere along the line had both positive and negative effects on the supply
situation. Since there was so little forward movement, reserve stockpiles grew at an
accelerated pace. Approximately 177,000 vehicles and more than half of a million tons of
supplies came ashore by D + 21. POL reserves at that time topped 7.5 million gallons. On
the other hand, failure to capture Cherbourg as early as planned meant that the proposed
pipeline schedule had to be voided. For weeks to come, all POL requirements would have to
be met solely by packaged distribution.
A breakout finally occurred the last week of July. Following a massive
aerial bombardment on the 25th, General Bradley's First Army managed to rupture German
lines to the right of St. Lo. The next day, three armored divisions poured rapidly through
the gap and moved 25 miles south near the base of the Contentin peninsula. With the door
forced wide open, new opportunities for early tactical success abounded. There was a
chance that if the Allies moved fast, struck hard and pressed the fight, they might
quickly defeat the entire German Army in France. In light of this largely unforeseen
possibility, many of the preinvasion plans were summarily scrapped. First and Third Armies
joined forces on 1 August (to form the U.S. 12th Army Group) and at once began exploiting
the principle of maneuver warfare to the fullest.
The Germans offered even lighter resistance than expected. Success
followed success in the Allied pursuit across France. As Patton's Third Army swept
westward into Brittany and south to Le Mans, it burned up an average of more than 380,000
gallons of gasoline per day. By 7 August (a week after becoming operational) its reserves
were completely exhausted. Patton had to rely on daily truck loads of packaged POL from
the rear. Nevertheless, he managed to continue this highly mobile type of warfare, driving
eastward for another three weeks, before being halted by critical shortages of gasoline.
Logistically speaking, the real turning point in the campaign came
during the week of 20 26 August. At that time, elements of both the First and Third Armies
were simultaneously engaged in rapid pursuit. They developed an insatiable thirst for
gasoline, and consumed more during this one week than any time previously. Average
consumption was well over 800,000 gallons per day. The First Army alone (with about 60
percent of its total supply allocations made up of Class III type items) used 782,000
gallons of motor fuel on 24 August. The next day Allied forces closed in on the Seine and
columns of U.S. And French troops entered Paris.
The decision to cross the Seine and immediately continue eastward,
without waiting to more fully develop lines of communication, constituted a major
departure from the OVERLORD plan. It posed serious difficulties for the theater
logisticians, but was a gamble senior commanders were willing to risk. "The armies,"
said General Bradley, on 27 August, "will go as far as practicable and then wait
until the supply system in rear will permit further advance." Once across the Seine,
forward divisions not only extended their lines, but fanned out in every direction
creating a front twice as broad as previously. The strain on the supply system was
immediately noticed as deliveries slowed to a trickle. The late August early September
operations were described by war correspondent Ernie Pyle as "a tactician's hell and
a quartermaster's purgatory."
Indeed It was both. Believing victory to be firmly within their grasp,
the fast-moving armies had outrun their supply lines and were forced to live hand-to-mouth
for several days. Ninety to ninety-five percent of all supplies on the continent still lay
in base depots. In the vicinity of Normandy the First Army had in effect
"leaped" more than 300 miles from Omaha beach in a month's time. Third Army had
done likewise. With the situation becoming daily more critical, it was time to begin what
one historian labeled 'frantic supply."
In a desperate effort to bridge the gap between user units at the front
and mounting stockpiles back at Normandy a long distance, one-way, "loop-run"
highway system dubbed the Red Ball Express was born. Since circumstances allowed little
time for advance planning or preparation, Red Ball was, as one observer noted,
"largely an impromptu affair." It began on 25 August, with 67 truck companies
running along a restricted route from St. Lo to Chartres, just south of Paris; and reached
a peak four days later with 132 companies (nearly 6,000 vehicles) assigned to the project.
Communications Zone (COMMZ) and Advance Section (ADSEC) transportation officials were
responsible for overseeing Red Ball activities, but it required the support and
coordination of many branches to succeed. While the Engineers were busy maintaining roads
and bridges, MPs were on hand at each of the major check points to direct traffic and
record pertinent data. Colorful signs and markers along the way not unlike the old
Burma Shave signs that covered America's own countryside kept drivers from getting lost,
and at the same time publicized daily goals and achievements. Quartermasters truck
drivers, materiel handlers, and petroleum specialists were ever present both along the
route and at the forward-area truck-heads. Disabled vehicles moved to the side of the
road, where they were either repaired on the spot by roving Ordnance units or evacuated to
Round-the-clock movement of traffic required adherence to a strict set
of rules. For instance, all vehicles had to travel in convoys and maintain 60-yard
intervals. They were not to exceed the maximum speed of 25 mph and no passing was allowed.
After dark, Red Ball drivers were permitted the luxury of using full headlights instead of
"cat eyes" for safety reasons. At exactly ten minutes before the hour each
vehicle stopped in place for a 10-minute break.
Bivouac areas were set up midway on the roads so exhausted drivers
could get some rest and a hot meal. (Incidentally, most drivers soon picked up on handy
tricks that come from living on the road, such as how to heat C-rations on the manifold or
make hot coffee in a number-10 can using a bit of gasoline.) At its height the Red Ball
saga captured the media's attention, and had the effect of placing supply and service
personnel in the spotlight for a change. Still, the job was hardly glamorous, involving as
it did endless hours of dull, hard, and sometimes dangerous work, POL occupied prominent
space on the Red Ball Express.
In late August, Eisenhower decided to forward most petroleum supplies
to the First Army (Hodges) and the British 21st Army Group (Montgomery). This action was
to come at the expense of Patton's Third Army to the South. On 31 August, Patton's daily
allotment of gasoline dropped off sharply from 400,000 to 31,000 gallons. This placed a
virtual strangle hold on the fiery commander, who fumed, pleaded, begged, bellowed and
cursed accordingly but to no avail. "My men can eat their belts," he was
overhead telling Ike at a meeting on 2 September, "but my tanks gotta have gas."
The logistical crisis threatened to halt the Allies where the enemy could not.
Fortunately, that crisis proved to be short-lived. It would only be a
slight exaggeration to say that Red Ball saved the day. The hastily conceived system
served as a useful expedient for bringing Class III items, especially gasoline, quickly to
the fuel-starved front. Even though First and Third Army supply officers would continue
bemoaning the gas shortage, the situation got markedly better. By the end of the first
week in September, forward area truckheads were issuing POL as soon as it came in, and
consumption rates were once again hitting the 800,000-gallon-a-day mark. The worst of
Patton's gasoline woes ended almost as quickly as they had begun. Mid-September saw the
two American Armies issuing in excess of one million gallons of gasoline daily enough to
meet the immediate needs and begin building slight reserves.
Red Ball was scheduled to run only until 5 September, but continued
through mid-November. In all, it transported more than 500,000 tons of supplies. The
system moved fuel quickly, if not always efficiently, to where most needed to keep the
drive alive. Most importantly, the Red Ball Express brought precious time for the rear
echelon support team, allowing it to complete its task of building up the railroads, port
facilities, and pipelines needed to sustain the final drive into Germany.
For over two months, the Red Ball Express did a
magnificent job transporting petroleum over distances up to 400 miles. Quartermasters did
their part by operating effectively as retailers of this product. However, success came
with a price tag. Round-the-clock driving strained personnel and equipment. Continuous use
of vehicles, without proper maintenance, led to their rapid
deterioration and ultimately to a drain on parts and labor. Tire
replacement alone nearly doubled from 29,142 just before Red Ball was launched to 55,059
in September. The situation was aggravated by driver abuse, such as speeding, and habitual
overloading. Extreme fatigue also led to increased accidents, and even a few instances of
sabotage, where drivers disabled their vehicles in order to rest.
Red Ball proved beyond a doubt the versatility and convenience of
transporting gasoline in small five-gallon containers. Jerricans required no special handling
apparatus and were amenable to open storage without harmful effects. However, at the very
height of Red Ball activities forward movement of POL was threatened by a severe shortage
of jerricans. The cans were carelessly discarded from the beachhead area and
littered the route all the way to the front. The Chief Quartermaster's highly
publicized propaganda blitz and cash incentive program prompted local civilians to help
round up "AWOL" jerricans." Still a jerrican shortage remained in
effect until more cans were manufactured on the home front.
Finally, the Red Ball Express had an inherent problem in that it was fast approaching a point of diminishing returns. As the route got longer and longer, the Red Ball required
more gasoline ultimately as much as 300,000 gallons per day just to keep the Red Ball
vehicles themselves moving.
Portions reprinted by permission from "POL on the Red Ball Express" by Dr. Steven E. Anders,
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin, Spring 1989.
Hollywood & This Subject
|1952's Red Ball Express, starring Jeff Chandler and Sidney Poitier, tells the tale of a racially integrated
platoon of Red Ball truckers that encounters private enmities, bypassed enemy pockets, minefields, and increasingly
perilous missions. Directed by Budd Boetticher. [ Internet Movie Database Listing ]|