Red Ball Express: The Legendary Lifeline To Allied Forces in World War II

Red Ball Express: The Legendary Lifeline To Allied Forces in World War II

In only 81 days of operation, the Red Ball Express became a legend in both the U.S. Army annals and American folklore, a remarkable logistical achievement unparalleled during World War II.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Red Ball Express kept the Allies rolling during the arduous campaign in Western Europe.

August 1944 saw a rosy mood of optimism and self-deception sweep through the Allied high command in France as a result of the sudden, dramatic end to the campaign in Normandy.

There were some short-sighted souls who perceived that the European war was virtually over, with the German Army retreating in apparent disarray after suffering nearly 450,000 casualties. But the premature celebrants at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) were overlooking the fact that there were still more than a million enemy troops in front of them, and these were committed to defending the Reich.

Despite many costly lessons in Tunisia, Sicily, at Salerno and Anzio, and in the Normandy bocage country, the Allied high command was again failing to comprehend the will and tenacity of well-trained German troops to resist against overwhelming odds. In August 1944, they were retreating but fighting stubbornly, and an appropriate Allied strategy was lacking. It was time for pursuit rather than consolidation. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, and his headquarters staff had not drawn up a clearly stated blueprint for a post-Normandy campaign except for Eisenhower’s own broad-front strategy. There had been no proposal from SHAEF on how to deal with the aftermath of the Normandy victory on an epic scale.

When the Allied armies neared the Siegfried Line, the heavily fortified western perimeter of the Third Reich, their lightning advance ground to a halt. “We have advanced so rapidly,” Eisenhower reported to General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, “that further movement in large parts of the front, even against very weak opposition, is almost impossible.”

Eisenhower’s army had moved so far ahead of schedule that it had outrun its supply line, which stretched all the way back to the invasion beaches. There, 90 percent of its reinforcements and matériel still came from across the Channel in England. The Allied armies were critically short of supplies, especially gasoline.

Due to a lack of foresight at SHAEF, the Allied victory in Normandy had produced a logistical nightmare, what war correspondent Ernie Pyle described as “a tactician’s hell and a quartermaster’s purgatory.”

The advancing armies were consuming fuel at a rate of about 800,000 gallons a day, and one U.S. division in combat required at least 500 tons of matériel—ammunition, rations, clothing, and medical supplies—a day.  The First and Third Armies each consumed about 400,000 gallons of gasoline daily as their Sherman medium tanks, tank destroyers, half-tracks, and field guns rolled out of Normandy. There was plenty of fuel and other supplies, but it was all in Normandy, stacked on the beaches, alongside roads, and around the villages. Few supply dumps existed between Normandy and the front lines, while some of the Allied forward units were 300 miles distant.

General John C.H. “Jesus Christ Himself” Lee

The man behind the logistical crisis was short, swaggering Lt. Gen. John C.H. “Jesus Christ Himself” Lee, chief of U.S. Services of Supply, who had failed to improvise an adequate and flexible supply system. While a spit and polish martinet and prodigious worker respected by Eisenhower, Lee was more preoccupied with establishing an elaborate, overstaffed headquarters in Paris than in ensuring the advancing armies were adequately provisioned.  They had outrun their supply lines, and getting necessities to the front was a daunting challenge. The French railway system had not recovered from Allied preinvasion bombing raids, and the Germans were still holding a number of major ports, including Calais, Le Havre, Brest, and Dunkirk. Cherbourg on the French northwestern coast was available, but its harbor facilities had been severely damaged by the Germans.

Eisenhower noted, “With 36 divisions in action, we were faced with the problem of delivering from beaches and ports to the front lines some 20,000 tons of supplies every day.”

The advancing forces had to be kept armed, fed, and moving, and the only solution was a long-range trucking system. As early as June 14, the U.S. Army had launched POL (petrol, oil, and lubricants) routes in France, with trucks and tankers delivering fuel and oil from the beachheads to inland depots. Other trucks picked up gasoline in jerry cans and hauled it forward during the early days of the pursuit.  But it was not enough, and a more efficient, orderly system was needed. So, officers of the Services of Supply and other field commanders assembled to find a solution to the crisis.

The principal planners were two officers from COMZ (communication zone) headquarters, Lt. Col. Loren A. Ayers and Major Gordon K. Gravelle. After 36 hours of intense study, they devised a novel plan for a nonstop convoy network, utilizing the abundance of vehicles available to the American armies.  Trucks were being unloaded in Normandy from cargo ships and landing craft at a rate of 3,000 per day. The aim of Ayers, Gravelle, and their staffs was to deliver 82,000 tons of supplies between August 25 and September 2. Borrowing a traditional railroading term for fast freight, the planners chose the name “Red Ball Express.” Their quick thinking met the logistical challenge and created a military legend.

23,000 Drivers and Mechanics, 6,000 Trucks and Jeeps

Army Transportation Corps and Services of Supply officers hastily organized the transport system in August 1944. They mobilized 23,000 drivers and mechanics, three-quarters of them black soldiers, and assembled more than 6,000 trucks, tankers, and escort jeeps. The blacks were recruited from service units, and most welcomed the opportunity to drive trucks rather than spend the rest of the war toiling at menial tasks. The segregated U.S. Army barred blacks from combat duty, except in the case of a few units such as the Third Army’s 761st Tank Destroyer Battalion.

The primary vehicles assembled for the Red Ball Express were standard two-and-a-half ton Jimmy cargo trucks, six-by-six cab-over-engine cargo and tractor trucks, two-and-a-half ton amphibian DUKWs, and four-by-four tractor trucks. The General Motors Jimmy, also popularly known as the “deuce-and-a-half,” formed the backbone of the Army’s supply chain.

The Red Ball Express was launched on Friday, August 25, 1944, with 3,558 trucks, mostly Jimmies, of 67 truck companies hauling 4,482 tons of supplies. They rolled out of St. Lo, in northwestern France, heading eastward on a one-way rout for 125 miles to the Chartres-Dreux area, where depots had been set up to supply the U.S. forces advancing beyond the River Seine toward Germany.

The trucks were crammed with matériel as they thundered out of the green Norman countryside, refueled in their first bivouac area at Alençon, and highballed on through ancient villages and past farms, flowery fields, and apple orchards until they came to the wide plain and saw the famous twin spires of the 13th-century Chartres Cathedral gleaming in the distance.  Supplies were unloaded, and the empty trucks barreled back to St. Lo on another one-way route, where the process was started again.

All along the Red Ball Highway, the truckers passed grim signs of war: wrecked German tanks and trucks pushed to the sides of the roads or resting in fields, the graves of fallen enemy soldiers, and dead and decaying cattle.  Destroyed bridges had to be bypassed, and when the convoys came to hamlets along the route, they had to slow to a crawl. The drivers of heavily loaded 10-ton tractor trailers had to summon all their skill to maneuver through narrow village streets, and even the smaller Jimmies hauling one-ton trailers found it hard going.

By the fourth day of operations, the system had been expanded, with 132 truck companies using 5,958 vehicles to carry more than 12,000 tons of supplies. Rest areas and regulating stations had been established along the route, and the Red Ball was in business. The bumper-to-bumper convoys became a familiar sight to Allied soldiers and French villagers, with endless streams of trucks jouncing and fuming through their one-way route.

Getting supplies to the frontline armies was the primary concern, and the Red Ball muleskinners would stop for nothing. Inevitably, they soon developed a reputation for recklessness and speeding, and wrecked Jimmies at the bottom of a steep hill or near a sharp curve became commonplace sights. British soldiers joked that if they saw a Red Ball truck approaching they should scramble out of the way and climb a tree. French pedestrians and bicycle riders scattered clear when they heard the roar of approaching supply convoys.

Moving 135,000 tons of Matériel

The original Red Ball route was a one-way loop road running one way to Chartres and back on another. The total length, outbound and inbound, was about 300 miles. It was kept strictly off limits to other vehicles. Military Police units were stationed to direct the trucks and keep unauthorized vehicles clear. The supplies had to get through, and the rest of the roads in France were jammed with Allied transport. The outgoing Red Ball convoys had difficulty leaving St. Lo because the town had been almost destroyed by bombing and artillery, and there was only room on the streets for one truck to get through at a time.