Utah Beach, Liberated France November 13, 1944

On this date in 1944 Utah Beach ceased operations as an off­loading site for men and supplies intended for Allied armies chasing east­ward-fleeing Germans across France. Utah Beach was one of five Nor­mandy invasion beaches where Allied men at arms and equip­ment came ashore to liber­ate German-occupied France from Nazi and Vichy French tyranny. A week later, on Novem­ber 19, 1944, Omaha Beach like­wise ceased off­loading oper­a­tions. The main Allied supply bases in Western Europe now shifted to Ant­werp (Europe’s largest port) and Ghent in Bel­gium and in France to Le Havre, Rouen, Cher­bourg, and Mar­seille. Ant­werp, 117 nau­ti­cal miles from the port of Dover and 203 nau­ti­cal miles from South­amp­ton port in England, began unloading supplies for the Allied armies on Novem­ber 26, 82 long days days after its capture by British Field Marshall Ber­nard Law Mont­gom­ery’s 21st Army Group. Two days later Ant­werp began functioning as the main supply base for Supreme Com­mander Dwight D. Eisen­hower’s Allied Expe­di­tionary Force. These events brought closure to one of the most inter­esting truck convoy operations of World War II, the Red Ball Express.

The Red Ball Express long-haul truck convoy system began operating on August 25, 1944. “Red Ball,” a rail­road term from the 1890s that referred to express shipping for priority freight, grew out of the recog­ni­tion of the increasing supply diffi­cul­ties the Allies had as their supply lines became more and more extended as they made their way to the German border. The French rail­way system had been bombed prac­ti­cally into ruina­tion prior to D‑Day and it would take weeks before enough French rail lines and stock were repaired and avail­able, to say nothing about newly designed 6‑inch port­able gaso­line pipe­lines being laid down. So for 83 days after the Allied break­out from Normandy in the first half of August, upwards of 25,000 men and 5,958 vehicles carried about 12,500 tons of supplies per day for the 28 hard-charging Allied divisions in France and Bel­gium that des­per­ately need constant resupply, especially of fuel and ordinance.

At the inauguration of the 24-hour truck convoy system, there were simply not enough large vehicles, trailers, or drivers to be had. So the Army raided units that had trucks and formed provi­sional truck units for the Red Ball Express. Sol­diers whose duties were not criti­cal to the war effort were asked—or tasked—to become drivers. The majority of the drivers and main­te­nance crew were African Amer­i­cans. Each truck in the con­voy was marked with a red disk at least 6 inches in dia­meter that repre­sented a red ball, and each truck was iden­ti­fied with a num­ber denoting its posi­tion in the convoy. A mini­mum of 5 trucks made up a con­voy, escorted in front and back by jeeps, and trucks separated by 60 ft were to travel at an average speed of 40 mph. Convoys were required to halt in place for 10 minutes every hour.

The Normandy breakout in August started a frenzied chase after the enemy that stretched Allied armored and infan­try divi­sions supply lines to near collapse. Gen. Eisen­hower recog­nized the Allied armies’ precar­i­ous situ­a­tion when he wrote to the offi­cers and men of the Red Ball Express and praised their per­for­mance: “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. 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.”

Red Ball Express, the “Lifeline Between Combat and Supply”

Red Ball Express and other truck convoy routes

Above: Map of the Red Ball Express “loop-run” highway system (red lines and arrows), the famed truck con­voy system that oper­ated between August 25 and Novem­ber 16, 1944, in France. To keep supplies flowing to the rapidly advancing Allied armies with mini­mal delay, two one-way routes parallel to each other were opened from the stra­tegic cross­roads town of Saint‑Lô in Normandy (St-Lô, left side on map). The northern route was used for deliv­ering supplies to inter­me­di­ate and forward logis­tics depots ending at Som­me­sous in the east, including an exten­sion north­east from Versailles to Hirson on the Franco-Bel­gian border. The southern route from Som­me­sous was used for returning empty vehicles and trailers to Saint‑Lô and beyond to the port of Cher­bourg on the Coten­tin Penin­sula and the Mul­berry arti­fi­cial harbor at Arro­manches (Gold Beach), nick­named Port Winston after British prime minister Win­ston Chur­chill. Civil­ian and local mili­tary traffic was barred on the express routes. Other high­way express routes in France around this time included the Green Dia­mond route connecting Cher­bourg and the five Normandy inva­sion beaches with the Red Ball Express depot at Saint-Lô, and the White Ball route connecting the port of Le Havre with Paris (southern branch) and Reims (northern branch).

Red Ball Express: loading trucks Red Ball Express: assembling loads

Left: Working hand in glove with the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps and Trans­por­ta­tion Corps, Red Ball Express drivers deliv­ered 700,000 dif­fer­ent items to the men and women in the Euro­pean Thea­ter of Oper­a­tions (ETO). By the time the Red Ball Express shut down oper­a­tions on Novem­ber 16, 1944, truckers had delivered between 412,193 and over 500,000 tons of petro­leum, oil, and lubri­cants (or POL), muni­tions, food, and other essen­tials to where it was most needed to keep the drive to the borders of Nazi Germany alive (sources differ on delivered ton­nage). In this photo soldiers load trucks with rations bound for front­line troops. From left to right are Pvt. Harold Hen­dricks, Staff Sgt. Carl Haines, Sgt. Theo­dore Cut­right, Pvt. Law­rence Buck­halter, Pfc. Horace Deahl, and Pvt. David N. Hatcher. The soldiers were assigned to the 4185th Quarter­master Service Company, Liege, Belgium.

Right: In the foreground is a trailer being loaded with hundreds of 5‑gallon jerry cans of gaso­line. The Army main­tained a reserve of 53,000,000 gallons of gaso­line stored in jerry cans for Gen. Omar Brad­ley’s U.S. 12th Army Group alone. Apart from muni­tions, gaso­line was the greatest need on the front­line and the high­ways thereto. A com­bat infan­try divi­sion required 150 tons of gaso­line a day, an armored divi­sion 350 tons per day. So gaso­line fuel depots were set up along the Red Ball and other Express routes, sometimes partially manned by German POWs who filled vehicles’ gaso­line tanks, checked tire pressures and oil levels, or cleaned windshields.

Red Ball Express convoyed through ruined French city Military police man Red Ball Express routes

Left: A Red Ball truck convoy leaving a supply depot, probably Saint‑Lô. Truck tires took a real beating due to French roads being rough and littered with rubble, shell frag­ments, C‑ration cans, and bits of barbed wire. Many trucks were run on flat or low tires to the nearest Ord­nance main­te­nance and repair shop, or they were patched on the spot by roving Ord­nance units. Ten per­cent of the tires replaced (over 55,000 in Sep­tem­ber alone) were beyond recapping. Other main­te­nance issues along the route con­cerned under­in­flated tires, dry bat­teries, motors and differ­en­tials burned out for lack of grease and oil, nuts and bolts loosening and falling off the vehicle, and lubricating with too‑light oil.

Right: Military police were stationed at major check­points to direct traffic, enforce traffic rules (e.g., no passing), and record per­ti­nent data. On a typical day, 900 fully loaded vehicles, or 140 truck convoys, were on Red Ball high­ways round-the-clock moving sorely needed materiel to the forward areas. Depending on the recip­i­ent army (Courtney Hodge’s First Army or George S. Patton’s Third Army), a round trip on average took 54 hours. Speeding was a huge prob­lem as drivers were pressed to speed deli­veries to front­line troops. Red Ball drivers and mecha­nics removed the gover­nors on the trucks’ carbu­re­tors that pre­vented drivers from exceeding 56 mph. Speeding, inex­peri­enced or sleep-deprived drivers (some drivers drove 20 hours straight), over­loaded trucks, shoddy main­te­nance, road fatigue, and the poor state of French roads caused numer­ous acci­dents, in­juries, and deaths. The major­ity of vehicles repaired or brought in for repair (about 1,500 daily) were the result of wrecks, many of them single-vehicle accidents.

MP on Red Ball Express highway Three Red Ball Express drivers

Left: Red Ball Express routes were marked with red balls. Corporal Charles H. John­son of the 793rd Mili­tary Police Battal­ion waves on a Red Ball Express truck convoy near Alençon, France, Sep­tem­ber 5, 1944. Behind John­son is a large bill­board that estab­lished the daily ton­nage target for Sep­tem­ber 5 at 11,000 tons. (See right-facing arrow halfway up the column of numbers.)

Right: Nearly 75 percent of all Red Ball Express drivers were African Amer­i­cans like the three sol­diers shown in this photo­graph at an unknown loca­tion. That’s because well before and during the war U.S. com­manders in general believed African Amer­i­cans had little to no mettle or guts for com­bat. Con­se­quently, the Army rele­gated blacks primarily to “safe” ser­vice and supply out­fits like the Red Ball Express and the Graves Regis­tra­tion Ser­vice, while the Navy assigned them as mess stewards. All Marines are combat troops—the Corps refused to accept blacks into their ranks until 1942. Black Red Ball soldiers faced continual prejudice and hostility from white soldiers.

U.S. War Department Presentation “Rolling to the Rhine” Recounts Red Ball Express Service History