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THE RED BALL EXPRESS, 1944

Equipment Specifications | Personal Stories | Other Exp Routes

    After 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.

    The key to pursuit was a continuous supply of fuel and ordnance, thus leading to the Red Ball Express.

    The 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.

   At the peak of its operation, it was running 5,938 vehicles carrying 12,342 tons of supplies to forward depots daily.

explanation of 'Red Ball' name -- from railroad term for express freight

In The Beginning

  At the 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 convoy lineup

Red Ball Express trucks carrying ammunition,
line up for the run.
 

   The 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.

* * *

 color drawing showing unload of broken vehicle enroute

“TROUBLE EN ROUTE” 
 Artist: Charles McBaron for the Center for Military History

 

    Here, 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.

* * *

     The 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.

traffic regulator and sign for Red Ball goal

    After 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.

    Some 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. 

definition of logistics -- leading right number of men, right time, place and with right equipment

 

 convoy assembly area

Trucks loaded with supplies assemble for convoys in northern France, 1944.
 

 

 

overhead of convoy waiting to move out                                     checking the map again while waiting for order to move

Convoys ready to go  and waiting for the final order.

 * * * *

                                                                        October 1944

            TO: The Officers and Men of the Red Ball Highway 

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 mounting importance. 

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 LINES

map of northern Europe

   Army 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.

   The 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 defensive lines.

   The 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.

map showing routes of Normandy invasion

    The 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 Ball Express.

 hand drawn strip map for Red Ball Express

Above and below, original hand-drawn map and list of truck units involved in initial Red Ball routes.

trucks and serials in convoy

* * * *

     "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 goof offs.

     "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

Interview, 1951

 * * * *

 The “100 percent internal combustion engine war.”

picking up empty jerry cans  filling empty jerry cans

    With the Allied drives toward Germany picking up speed, the consumption of gasoline rose to an all time high for the war.

    The Army maintained a reserve of 53,000,000 gallons of gasoline packed in jerry cans for 12th Army Group alone.

gallos of POL delivered to Liege and Verdun


Gasoline Supply Points

   Gasoline supply points were established along the Red Ball and other Express routes.

 GM 6X6 Tanker Truck

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.

    The 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]

 
FUEL DEPOT

    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.

 convoy of GM 6X6 with jerry cans

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.

    Using 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.

   This GMC convoy, led by a CCKW-353, is moving to French Atlantic ports for subsequent shipment to the Pacific or the USA.  July 1945

convoy of GM 6X6 going to French port

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.

    The 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 pounds.

the 'jerry' can -- external fuel supply

The 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

 * * * *

The FLIMSY

   The 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 tea.

 the flimsy English external fuel can

Making tea
 

    The 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 discarded.

    The only container worth having was the German jerry can, but the only supply was those captured in battle.

     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 PROBLEMS

    Maintenance units reported the following types of maintenance deficiencies, which stemmed primarily from inexperienced drivers:

  * Dry batteries

  * Motors and differentials burned out for lack of grease and oil

  *  Lack 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

  *  Lack of valve caps (usually only one or two per vehicle found)
 

 engine reconstruction at a depot in Normandy

The GMC 6x6 and DUKW
 A Universal Truck, Boniface & Jeudy, 1978.

    Above, 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. 

   Tires 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.

   Ten 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. 

By war’s end, the supply of tires was almost non-existent.

 POW convoy

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.

result of over-weight truck -- truck flips and cargo spills


    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.

 cover of American Legion magazine showin truck, crew, riders, and cargo bouncing 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.

 filling the tires

 Filling tires with air along the route.
 

   Most 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.

 repairing an engine while a crewmember stands guard in a cab mounted machinegun

Members of the Red Ball Express repair a 2-1/2 ton truck, while a crewman at a machine
gun keeps watch.
 

 

stuck in 'la mud'

A Red Ball Express truck stuck in the mud in the French countryside, 1945.


fording a swollen river

 

A convoy of 2-1/2 ton trucks negotiates the flooded streets of Rambervillars, France, 1945.
 

 

 truck overturned in snow

A 2-1/2 ton 6x6 truck, belonging to 1st Army,
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 long hauls.

food, medical attention, and repair along the way -- American Red Cross

     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.

crane lowering repair parts from truck

     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. 

    When 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 Corps.

    New Express lines were formed to feed the ever lengthening lines of supply.   

first day of issue stamp honoring Red Ball Express

* * *

 First Day Cover for the United States Postal Service.  Original painting by Chris Calle.

 * * * 

THE MOVIE:

movie poster of Red Ball Express

    Some 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 and soldiers.

    In 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.

still from movie Red Ball Express showing James River 'ghost' fleet in background

another still from movie showing 'ghost' fleet in bakcground

 

 

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