The Red Ball Express was a supply line that was set up to ensure that the Allied troops who invaded France in 1944 were well supplied. It wasn’t just any supply line though; it was vital to the Allies’ advance against Nazi Germany in the latter months of 1944… Here, Greg Bailey tells this World War Two story.
Like the Pony Express, whose legend has lasted far longer than its short history, the Red Ball Express, the vital supply line across France supporting the Allies’ war-effort against Germany, has earned a well-deserved heroic reputation. The around-the-clock stream of truck convoys was as important as any battle fought in World War II.
The Red Ball Express was created on the battlefield to solve an unforeseen but welcome development. The planners of D-Day anticipated there would be enough supplies, primarily gasoline, to support the advancing combat units while engineers completed a gas supply line from the Normandy landing area to the rear of the combat area. For a time, as the Allies slowly fought their way through difficult hedgerow country, the supplies piled up. But after Bradley’s division broke through the German lines, General George Patton saw an opening and aggressively took it. He charged across France and the army soon began to run out of supplies. By mid August Patton had to slow down his advance for lack of fuel. The gasoline and other supplies his men needed were piled up far from the front. "My men can eat their belts” Patton said, "but my tanks gotta have gas." The solution was a special unit running on designated roads to move the supplies. Borrowing the name from the railroads, the Red Ball Express was born.
The Express at work
The Red Ball Express only ran from the end of August to the middle of November 1944. Men and trucks from scattered units were hurriedly brought together. During those few months the convoys running on the designated roads marked by red ball signs, hauled more than 400,000 tons of materials from the Normandy beaches to the ever changing front lines of the Allied campaign. The loads included ammunition, medical supplies and food but above all gasoline in five gallon jerricans that were needed to keep the fuel hungry tanks and other vehicles advancing toward the enemy. Patton called the operations of the Red Ball Express “our most important weapon.”
Patton’s most important weapon was a combination of one of the best examples of American ingenuity and one of the most shameful episodes of American history. Although the army used several models of truck during the operations, the mainstay was the two and a half tom Jimmie. The Jimmie had a five-ton cargo capacity. The no frills version of the civilian truck, the Jimmie, was designed to be easily and quickly assembled. With simple, interchangeable parts, during the Red Ball Express’ operations, mechanics were able to swap out engines and transmissions by the side of the road often under enemy fire. Tires were a problem, often flattened on the road by discarded C-ration cans. Under these tough conditions, each Jimmie had a life expectancy of less than a year.
Valiance in the face of Discrimination
What really pushed the operation was the men driving and repairing the trucks Three quarters of the Red Ball Express personnel were African Americans serving in all black units with white officers over them, barred from serving in combat under the segregation laws of the time. The white troops lived in separate quarters and were kept away from their comrades during and after duty. British Major General H. Essame said: "few who saw them will ever forget the enthusiasm of the Negro drivers, hell-bent whatever the risk, to get General Patton his supplies."
Despite the sting of discrimination the men charged with the vital supply mission went above and beyond. On an average day 83 transportation units operated almost 900 trucks on the network of roads closed to all other military or civilian traffic. On paper the speed limit for the five truck convoys was 25 mph with each truck spaced out in 60 feet intervals. In reality drivers disabled the governors on the truck engines to exceed the posted speed limits and the trucks were sometimes overloaded above their five-ton capacity.
During the first days of the Express, as the front lines nearly ran out of supplies, drivers set out with maps torn out of the pages of the Stars and Stripes newspaper. And while the route was a solid line on a map, in reality the roads were narrow and twisting, pock marked with battle damage, running through fields of dead livestock and hidden snipers. The trucks ran at night with obscured headlights soon called cats’ eyes. Along the roads drivers passed the remains of trucks wrecked in accidents or destroyed by enemy fire.
Indeed, although the Red Ball Express was officially a non-combat unit, drivers were drawn into battles. Some of the trucks were fitted with 50 caliber machine guns and all of the personnel carried rifles with them. In these battles, black drivers left their trucks and fought alongside white soldiers and then returned to their second class status behind the wheels of their trucks marked with bullet holes. Against these hazards the Red Ball Express pushed on, with drivers completing the average 600-mile round-trip with little or no rest.
The murkier side
There was a dark side to the operation. In his 2000 book The Road to Victory author David Colley tells how bottles of premium French wine were traded for far more valuable cans of gasoline. Prostitutes along the way accepted jerricans as payment. A few fully loaded trucks disappeared into the Paris black market under the unchallenged story that the trucks were destroyed by enemy fire.
By November other supply lines including pipelines and secured ports and rail lines had taken over the task of the Express. The Red Ball Express trucks were using a great amount of fuel to deliver gas to the increasingly distant destinations. The Red Ball Express had completed its mission. Other operations ran on other routes but the Red Ball Express image lived on it part because of the red circles on the transportation units insignia.
After the war the Red Ball Express was celebrated in the Broadway musical Call Me Mister. “Steam was hissing from the hoods when they showed up with the goods. But they turned around and went back for more.” A wildly inaccurate film on the Red Ball Express was released in 1952 staring actor Jeff Chandelier leading mixed white and black crews on trucks through burring villages to delivery gas to the stranded tank crews. An equally inaccurate sitcom on the Express ran for a short time on CBS in the 1970s.
But perhaps the most sincere tribute was expressed by the simple words of Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower. After calling the Red Ball Express the “lifeline between combat and supply”, Eisenhower said:
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.
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Greg Bailey is a history writer from St. Louis. His book The Voyage of the F.H. Moore and Other 19th Century Whaling Accounts was published last year.