Utah Beach, Liberated France November 13, 1944

On 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 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 to Le Havre, Rouen, Cher­bourg, and Mar­seille in France. Belgium’s 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 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, together with restoring the French rail system, brought clo­sure to one of the most inter­esting truck convoy operations of World War II, the Red Ball Express.

The Red Ball Express 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 needed con­stant resupply, espe­cially of fuel and ordi­nance but occa­sion­ally replacement soldiers and Army nurses.

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 (two drivers per truck) 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. When con­voys came to ham­lets along the route, they had to slow to a crawl. 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, maté­riel 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. Total length of the ini­tial high­way system, out­bound and in­bound, was roughly 300 miles. Civil­ian and local mili­tary traffic was barred on the express routes. Other high­way express routes in France around this time included the short-lived Green Dia­mond route connecting Cher­bourg and the five Normandy inva­sion beaches with the Red Ball Express depot at Saint-Lô, the White Ball route connecting the port of Le Havre with Paris (southern branch) and Reims (northern branch), and the ABC (Amer­ican-British-Cana­dian) Express Line estab­lished to fetch supplies from the Antwerp docks.

Red Ball Express: loading trucksRed 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, where a big supply depot was being estab­lished to support an Allied thrust into Western Germany.

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. Some­times gaso­line deliv­eries were made in the heat of battle. Said one sol­dier: “That takes guts. Our Negro out­fits delivered gas under con­stant fire. Damned if I’d want their job.” 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 cityMilitary police man Red Ball Express routes

Left: A Red Ball truck convoy leaving a supply depot, pro­bably Saint‑Lô owing to that com­mu­nity’s utter destruc­tion from bombing and artil­lery. 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 bumper-to-bumper traffic, enforce traffic rules (e.g., no passing, black­out lights, so-called “cat’s eyes,” on front and rear of vehicles), 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 maté­riel 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 highwayThree 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, a refueling and bivouac area on the Red Ball Highway, 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. Yet when the U.S. Army’s man­power pool ran low during the Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16 to Janu­ary 25, 1945), many ex-Red Ball drivers joined the infan­try, and by Febru­ary 1945 a total of 4,500 blacks had signed on for combat duty.

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

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