BALL EXPRESS, 1944
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the breakout of Normandy in July 1944, an acute
shortage of supplies on both fronts governed all
operations. Some 28 divisions were advancing across
France and Belgium, each ordinarily requiring
700-750 tons a day. Patton's 3rd Army was soon
grinding to a halt from lack of fuel and ordnance.
key to pursuit was a continuous supply of fuel and
ordnance, thus leading to the Red Ball Express.
Red Ball Express was conceived in a 36-hour
brain-storming session. It lasted only 3 months
from August to November, 1944, but without it, the
campaign in the European Theater could have dragged
on for years.
peak of its operation, it was running 5,938 vehicles
carrying 12,342 tons of supplies to forward depots
In The Beginning
onset, there were not enough trucks or drivers. The
Army raided units that had trucks and formed
provisional truck units for the Red Ball. Soldiers
whose duties were not critical to the war effort
were asked - or tasked - to become drivers. The
majority of these were young African-Americans.
Red Ball Express trucks carrying
line up for the run.
first convoys quickly bogged down in civilian and
military traffic. In response, a priority route was
established - two parallel highways between the
Normandy beachhead and the city of Chartres, France.
* * *
“TROUBLE EN ROUTE”
Artist: Charles McBaron for the Center
for Military History
in a soggy field somewhere outside Versailles, a
driver has pulled his disabled truck out of a
convoy. Determined non-repairable by a Red Ball
maintenance crew, the truck’s cargo is transferred
to a replacement vehicle. When the transfer is
finished, the driver will take a position in another
convoy and eventually rejoin his unit at the
exchange point in Normandy.
* * *
rules were clear: Trucks were to travel only in
convoys. Each convoy was to have no fewer than five
trucks each. Each truck was marked with a number
showing its position in the convoy, and the trucks
were to stay 60 feet apart and travel at 35 mph.
the invasion of Normandy, it was of paramount
importance to move supplies north. An American
infantry division required 150 tons of gasoline per
day, and an armored division 350 tons per day.
of the supply lines were thousands of miles long,
and the amount of provisions and munitions numbered
thousands of tons. This was almost ten times that
of World War I.
Trucks loaded with supplies assemble for
convoys in northern France, 1944.
Convoys ready to go and
waiting for the final order.
* * * *
TO: The Officers and Men of the Red Ball
1. In any war, there are two
tremendous tasks. That of the combat troops is to
fight the enemy. That of the supply troops is to
furnish all the material to insure victory. The
faster and farther the combat troops advance against
the foe, the greater becomes the battle of supply.
2. Supplies are reaching the
continent in increasing streams. But the battle to
get those supplies to the front becomes daily of
3. The Red Ball Line is the
lifeline between combat and supply. To it falls the
tremendous task of getting vital supplies from ports
and depots to the combat troops, when and where such
supplies are needed, material without which the
armies might fail.
4. To you drivers and
mechanics and your officers, who keep the Red Ball
vehicles constantly moving, I wish to express my
deep appreciation. You are doing an excellent job.
5. But the struggle is not
yet won. So the Red Ball Line must continue the
battle it is waging so well, with the knowledge that
each truckload which goes through to the combat
forces cannot help but bring victory closer.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER
General, U. S. Army
* * * *
OUT-RUNNING THE SUPPLY
General George S. Patton’s bold armored advance
across France in 1944 is credited historically as a
significant contribution to the Allied victory in
Europe in World War II.
stalemate that had developed after the Normandy
landings became critical, and Operation Cobra was
launched on 21 July 1944 to break the stalemate.
The Operation called for a massive aerial
bombardment along a small stretch of the Germany
results of the attack were better than the Allies
had hoped - - too good in fact. The Germany Army
retreated so rapidly, the Allies were forced to
scramble after them.
breakout from Normandy and the French hedgerow
country started a race to Paris and points north and
east. With the railroads damaged from Allied
interdiction efforts and the port of Cherbourg
almost unusable because of German sabotage, Patton
stretched his supply line to near-collapse.
Temporary harbors were established, and 24-hour
trucking operations began. Thus was born The Red
Above and below, original hand-drawn map
and list of truck units involved in
initial Red Ball routes.
* * * *
"The ability to drive was secondary. All of us
assigned on the Red Ball detail had been in some
kind of hassle with the officers and were known as
"I had an argument with the Major two days before
the list was posted. He told me I wouldn't be
around for long. Fortunately I could drive a stick
shift and clutch, but the 2-1/2 tonners we were
given had all kinds of low, low & low, over, under,
etc. speeds we were totally ignorant of. We saw the
list on the bulletin board - moved out in a truck
within one hour and were at Omaha Beach by 2-3 A.M.
No questions as to whether we could drive.
"We divided up by twos - and mounted up (into a
loaded 2-1/2 tonner). Shifting directions were
posted on the dashboard.
"Out of the 40 some odd trucks lined up - after a
rash of banging, bumping, crashing, and grinding
gears - about 15 actually shaped up and moved out in
a semblance of a convoy.
"Only 5 of the 15 men on the detail list were from
the Motor Pool. The rest were litter bearers,
corpsmen, even a dental technician."
MSG David Malachowsky
Staten Island, New York
* * * *
“100 percent internal combustion engine war.”
the Allied drives toward Germany picking up speed,
the consumption of gasoline rose to an all time high
for the war.
Army maintained a reserve of 53,000,000 gallons of
gasoline packed in jerry cans for 12th Army Group
Gasoline Supply Points
Gasoline supply points were established along the
Red Ball and other Express routes.
The GMC 6x6 and DUKW A Universal Truck,
Boniface & Jeudy, 1978.
Above, an American soldier checks the underground
tank level at an old civilian service station, one
of the supply points for light vehicles.
soldiers are discharging two tanks of gasoline from
their CCKW-353 by means of gravity. These two tanks
contain a total of 750 gallons. [US 7th Army, 1945]
At a fuel depot on the Red Ball Express route,
GMC convoys arrive to load 5-gallon jerry cans (18.9
liters). This center was supplied by rail
transport, and had a daily distribution capacity of
250,000 gallons (945,000 liters). France, 1944.
The GMC 6x6 - A Universal Truck,
Boniface & Jeudy, 1978.
GASOLINE AND OIL SERVICE
In the photo this gas and oil service station
near Reims (eastern France), belonging to the 3939th
Gas Supply Company, was probably one of the largest
US gasoline supply points.
78 gas outlets supplied from 12 x 7,000 US gallon
tanks, it was able to refill more than 400 vehicles
an hour. German prisoners checked tire pressures
and oil levels, or cleaned windscreens.
GMC convoy, led by a CCKW-353, is moving to French
Atlantic ports for subsequent shipment to the
Pacific or the USA. July 1945
The GMC 6x6 - A Universal Truck,
Boniface & Jeudy, 1978.
THE JERRY CAN
Allied soldiers knew the only gasoline container
worth having was German.
Hitler knew his weakest link was fuel supply, and
ordered the design of a fuel container that would
minimize gasoline losses under combat conditions.
German jerry can was flat-sided and rectangular,
with two halves welded together. It had three
handles, enabling one man to carry two cans and pass
one to another man in bucket-brigade fashion. The
capacity was 5 US gallons and its weight filled, 45
German Jerry Can, 1939
"Without these cans, it would have been impossible
for our armies to cut their way across France at
lightning pace, exceeding the German Blitz of 1940."
Franklin D. Roosevelt, President, USA
* * * *
British designed gas can, called a 'flimsy,' was a
four Imperial-gallon tin plate container, that had
to be packed in wooden crates to protect it. The
'flimsy' was loathed by soldiers, who preferred to
cut it down, fill it with sand and stones, a dose
of gasoline and light it boiling the kettle to make
US design followed the German design, but used
rolled seams. It required both a wrench and a
funnel to pour the gasoline out, and was soon
only container worth having was the German jerry
can, but the only supply was those captured in
Ultimately, both the US and Britain began
manufacturing gas cans that followed the German
design. Millions were ready by D-Day, and by V-E
day almost 21,000,000 Allied jerry cans were
scattered all over Europe.
Maintenance units reported the following types
of maintenance deficiencies, which stemmed primarily
from inexperienced drivers:
Motors and differentials burned out for lack of
grease and oil
of effort to keep nuts and bolts tight, resulting in
drive shafts falling off, transfer cases loosening,
wheels coming off, fenders and bodies breaking up
Lubricating with too-light oil
Under-inflation of tires
of valve caps (usually only one or two per vehicle
The GMC 6x6 and DUKW
A Universal Truck, Boniface & Jeudy,
in a vehicle reconstruction depot in Normandy, SGT
Hollis Maddeux of Rochester, Texas and PVT Almott
Sehlke of Renham, Texas remove a GMC type 270 engine
from its box so that it can be reassembled on the
CCKW-353 in the background.
took a real beating on the roads. Roads were
littered with shell fragments, C-ration cans and
bits of barbed wire. Trucks were overloaded and
being driven faster than they should.
percent of the tires replaced were beyond
recapping. Sixty-five percent were due directly to
running over C-ration cans. Many trucks were run on
flats to the nearest maintenance point.
end, the supply of tires was almost non-existent.
Note that wheels are missing from the
rear axles of the first and third
vehicles in the column. German
prisoners at Strasbourg, February 1945.
"Red Ball trucks broke, but
they didn't brake."
Speeding was part of the mystique of the Red Ball
drivers. "Push 'em up there," was a popular slogan
in the ETO. Drivers and mechanics removed the
governors on the trucks' carburetors (that
restricted them to 56 mph), allowing them to reach
speeds of 70 mph. Speeding, inexperience drivers,
and overloaded trucks caused numerous accidents
along the route of the Red Ball Express.
Weight restrictions were ignored as well. Some
of the trucks were so overloaded that they swayed
going down the roads, and boxes would bounce around.
American Legion Magazine, January 1984.
This painting, titled "GANGWAY," by Charles
Waterhouse illustrates the Red Ball Express convoys
barreling across Normandy, France.
Without the Red Ball, the advance across France
could not have been made. Maj. Gen H. Essame, a
British infantry brigade commander, said "Few who
saw them will ever forget the enthusiasm of the
Negro drivers, hell-bent whatever the risk, to get
Gen. Patton his supplies."
REPAIRS ALONG THE ROAD
Vehicle repair along the road was endless. Over
1500 repairs were being made daily by Ordnance
pit-stops. More than 600 of the vehicles under
repair were being replaced with exchange vehicles.
tires with air along the route.
of the vehicles brought in for repair were the
result of wrecks and not mechanical failures,
primarily from driving too fast, not staying with
convoys, and improper maintenance.
Members of the Red Ball Express repair a
2-1/2 ton truck, while a crewman at a
gun keeps watch.
Red Ball Express truck stuck in the mud
in the French countryside, 1945.
convoy of 2-1/2 ton trucks negotiates
the flooded streets of Rambervillars,
2-1/2 ton 6x6 truck, belonging to 1st
rolled in the snow in France, 1945.
WAYSIDE STOPS – BATTLING
FATIGUE AND MAINTENANCE
Traffic control points were set up in main centers
along the route of the Red Ball Express. These
control points monitored traffic, regrouped
straggling trucks, and gave soldiers a rest from the
American Red Cross supplied eight club-mobiles to
provide hot coffee and sandwiches to drivers.
Medics operated aid stations along the route, and
Ordnance units set up maintenance and repair shops.
Above, at an equipment depot located along the
"Red Ball Express" route, a crane unloads crates of
vehicle spare parts. Over a period of 81 days, more
than 400,000 tons were transported.
the Red Ball Express ended 16 November 1944,
truckers had delivered 412,193 tons of gas, oil,
lubricants, ammunition, food and other essentials.
By then, 210,209 African Americans were serving in
Europe and 93,292 of them were in the Quartermaster
Express lines were formed to feed the ever
lengthening lines of supply.
* * *
Cover for the United States Postal Service.
Original painting by Chris Calle.
* * *
of the filming for the film “The Red Ball Express”
was done at Fort Eustis, Virginia, home of the
Army’s Transportation Corps. The filming took place
along the beach of the James River using Army trucks
the two photos below, you can see the U.S. Maritime
Reserve Fleet anchored in the James River, looking
similar to troop and cargo ships off the Normandy
coast in World War II.