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.

A Red Ball Express convoy is waved on near Alenon, France. September 1944.

A Red Ball Express convoy is waved on near Alenon, France. September 1944.

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.

Nick Tingley writes his latest article for the site on a fascinating topic. He postulates on what could have happened had the 1944 Normandy Landings against Nazi Germany taken place in 1943. As we shall see, things may well have not turned out as well as they did…


In a mid-spring morning in 1943, France was awash with blood. Like the brutal battle of Gallipoli in the First World War, Allied troops found themselves once again pinned down and being forced back into the sea by a well-trained army. These troops, under the command of US General George Patton, had barely been on the shores of Normandy for more than a week before the German war machine had finally kicked in to gear. Starting at Benouville in the east, German Panzer units were screaming across the coast of Normandy, cutting off the divisions that had already made their way inland. Those that managed to cling on to the coastline began to be evacuated but the German counter-attack was so swift that many were left to their fate. For the second time in the Second World War, the Allies had been kicked out of France.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied effort in Europe, was given little choice but to order the withdrawal of the rest of the invasion force. Soon after he accepted full responsibility for the failure and was fired. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who only a year before had quite happily dismissed Churchill’s plan to attack the “soft underbelly of Europe”, was now forced to admit that the British Prime Minister may have been right. Under immense pressure from a population that was already astonished by America’s “Germany First Policy”, Roosevelt was forced to withdraw his forces from Europe to face off with the Empire of Japan in the Pacific.

After a year of revelling in the presence of their strong, American allies, Britain once again found itself facing the Nazi threat – alone in the West.

US troops before fighting began in June 1944.

US troops before fighting began in June 1944.

Operation Round Up

But none of this happened.

The Allies did not launch a large-scale invasion of France in 1943. Nor did they fail to hold on to the landings when D-Day finally came about in 1944. Eisenhower was not fired and the American population did not demand that the Armed Forces withdraw to take on the more immediate Japanese threat.

But, when the Americans finally joined the war in Europe in 1942, this scenario of an attempted invasion of France in 1943 was certainly a real possibility. President Roosevelt and his generals, under a huge amount of pressure from the American people and his new Russian ally, Josef Stalin, were eager to open up a second front in France and bring the Nazis to heel as soon as possible.

The proposed invasion of France, codenamed “Operation Round Up”, was intended to take place in the spring of 1943. Its goal was to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union and force a quick end to what had already been a war to rival the Great War of 1914-18. The plan could have ended the war by Christmas 1943. But it was not to be.


The British Question

The main character responsible for delaying the invasion of France was the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. As a politician who had led Britain against the threat of invasion in 1940 and saw the turn about of the British fortunes of war in North Africa, Churchill held a lot of sway over both the British people and the American president. Whilst American generals were advocating an invasion of France as soon as the troops were ready to do so, Churchill and the British generals were suggesting a more roundabout way of dealing with the Nazi threat.

Churchill’s suggestion was simple. The Allies should focus on removing the Axis Powers from Africa first, to relieve pressure on the forces fighting from Egypt. Then, once Africa was secure, he later suggested that the Allies should attack Sicily and then mainland Italy in an attempt to knock the German’s closest ally, Italy, out of the war before taking the Nazis on in the final attack.

Unwilling to argue with the British, whose island offered the only close staging point for any invasion of France, Roosevelt eventually capitulated to Churchill’s plan, much to the dismay of his own generals. Seaborne landings took place in Africa in 1942 and in Sicily and Italy the following year.

Ever since, historians have been arguing over Churchill’s intentions for suggesting an attack on the “soft underbelly of Europe”. Many suggest that Churchill was only ever interested in securing Britain’s Empire by having troops in Africa and that the attack in Italy was designed so that Churchill could gain leverage against the Soviet Union in any potential post-war agreement. It appeared that many of the American generals at the time had considered this possibility as well. When Churchill further suggested the idea of an invasion of the Balkans prior to an invasion of France, the generals, and later historians, were quick to suggest that this was merely a ploy to ensure that the Soviet Union would have little bargaining power after the war was over. However, this invasion did not take place and Roosevelt finally stood his ground, insisting that the Allies’ next invasion should take place in France.

There are, however, some historians who have suggested that Churchill had learned from his experience at Gallipoli during the First World War and, as such, was proceeding with a greater caution when addressing the issue of defeating the Nazis. These historians are keen to point out that the sea and air landings in Africa, Sicily and Italy were by no means successful.


Learn By Experience

Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, was a complete farce in comparison to the later D-Day landings. Both the British and Americans failed to achieve their objectives, the landings were delayed due to poor planning and an airborne operation with a single American parachute battalion turned into a complete nightmare. In the aftermath of Operation Torch, both the US General Patton and British General Clark acknowledged that the landings had been completely chaotic. They even went so far as to suggest that their troops would have been massacred had they been fighting German troops rather than the badly armed French colonial troops that they actually engaged.

Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, was little better. Although pre-dawn airborne drops and sea landings saw 80,000 allies land on in Sicily, the attacks themselves were often chaotic. After landing on shore, the US Seventh Army had no clear objectives due to the vague planning of the operation and it was only by the exploitative nature of General Patton that the army did not stop dead in its tracks. Furthermore, troops often came ashore in the wrong place and airborne troops found themselves scattered all over the place. The British glider force, who were tasked with capturing a key bridge south of Syracuse, lost the majority of its gliders to the sea and were forced to capture the bridge with only thirty men. To make matters worse, ground commanders often complained about the lack of Allied air cover over Sicily, but their air force colleagues were unwilling to risk fighters as they would often get picked off by their own anti-aircraft batteries.

The Allied landings in Italy in September 1943 appeared to be a drastic improvement on the earlier attempts in North Africa and Sicily, but this was largely due to the Italian government surrendering shortly afterwards. A later landing at Anzio in January 1944 failed to advance quickly enough and allowed the occupying Germans to fall back to more defensible positions.

Whilst many are quick to criticise Churchill for “leading the Allies up the Mediterranean path”, the chaotic invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy show us that the Allies were by no means ready to take on the Germans in 1943. In fact, many of the lessons learned from these failures during the earlier invasions ensured the success of Operation Overlord in June 1944. Regardless of Churchill’s reasoning, he had at least prevented a potentially disastrous invasion of France in 1943.


The What Could Have Beens

So what would have happened during a 1943 invasion of France?

There are many interpretations for what might have happened. I believe that General Patton would have been the obvious choice to lead the invasion of France. Patton was not chosen to lead the attack in 1944 due to an incident during the Sicily campaign where he slapped a soldier who was suffering from combat fatigue. But if the invasion of Sicily had never happened, this event may not have happened leaving Patton open to command the attack on the Normandy beaches.

There may still have been an attempt to attack and capture Pegasus Bridge, which was one of the few bridges that would allow the Germans access to attack the eastern flank of the Normandy beachheads. And this attack would probably have been undertaken by glider assault. But we can imagine that the attack would have been as successful as the glider assault in Sicily. With gliders crashing well short of the target there would have been few troops in position to hold the bridge. The troops at Pegasus Bridge would have easily been overrun and the Germans would have had the opportunity to cut the invading armies off from the sea.

There would have been an airborne assault, but given how chaotic the airborne assaults in North Africa and Sicily had been, the confusion that the paratroopers encountered on D-Day in 1944 would have been far greater in 1943 had they not had that earlier experience in the Mediterranean. The same can be said of the beach landings that would have been chaotic and delayed. We can quite easily imagine that the struggle that occurred on Omaha beach in 1944 would have been present and even greater at every single landing site in 1943.

Whilst we can’t know for sure that a 1943 invasion of France would have been a disaster, history suggests that it would have been. It is entirely possible that the landings themselves may have been a success, but without the experience of encountering those small failures in the otherwise successful landings in the Mediterranean it seems highly unlikely that the invasion of France would have achieved anything close to the success of D-Day. At best, an Allied Army would have found itself penned into the Normandy region by a more experienced German force. At worse, the Germans would have poured along the coast, cutting off the invasion forces and driving the rest back in to the sea.


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The Second World War - Anthony Beevor (2012)

Invaders: British and American Experience of Seaborne Landings 1939 - 1945 - Colin John Bruce (1999)

Fighting them on the Beaches: The D-Day landings, June 6, 1944 - Nigel Cawthorne (2002)

D-Day Fails: Atomic Alternatives in Europe - Stephen Ambrose (1999)