Red Ball Express

In August 1944, following the breakout from the D-Day invasion beachhead, the Allied armies in France had a monumental logistical challenge to supply their fast moving forces of 28 divisions. As Gen. Patton and the other commanders roared forward, they used enormous quantities of rations, ammunition, and especially fuel. To keep up, the Services of Supply borrowed a concept from the railroads, designating priority truck routes for one way traffic to distribution points near the front. The route was marked with red circle signs, the "red ball" that gave the system its name. Only trucks with the matching red ball insignia could go there.

Vehicles line up for a Red Ball Express convoy
Vehicles line up for a Red Ball Express convoy.

Today in WW II: 21 May 1942 Sinking of the Mexican tanker Faja de Oro by German submarine U-160, off Key West, precipitates Mexican declaration of war against Nazi Germany.   

Overview of the Red Ball Express

Red Ball Express convoys moving through a Regulating Point, France, 1944
Red Ball Express convoys moving through a Regulating Point, France, 1944.

The Army Transportation Corps created the huge Red Ball Express trucking operation on 21 August 1944. Supply trucks started rolling on 25 August and continued non-stop for 82 days. On an average day, 900 fully loaded vehicles were on the Red Ball route around the clock. Most of the trucks were 2 1/2 ton 6x6 GMC CCKW vehicles, along with tractor-trailers and other large cargo carriers.

Main roads in France were commandeered and designated for one-way traffic, in a closed loop to the front and back. Special signs and markings, backed up by Military Police patrols and guards, kept the Red Ball trucks on the correct road, unopposed by other traffic, and on schedule. Trucks ran at least 20 hours per day, stopping only for necessary repairs, loading, unloading, and maintenance. Breakdowns were dealt with quickly at wayside repair shops and by mobile crews.

On the return trip, the trucks were not empty. Salvaged shell casings, war debris of all kinds, wounded soldiers, POWs, and the remains of the dead were all carried back from the front to rear areas for processing.

Over eighty percent of the drivers were African Americans, whose numbers were heavily concentrated in the Transportation Corps due to discriminatory policies. To augment the regular crews, relief drivers were pulled from every unit in Europe on a priority basis. Red Ball truckers worked to exhaustion to ensure that no truck was idle for lack of a driver.

When the program ended in mid-November 1944, Red Ball Express truckers had delivered an amazing total of 412,193 tons of food, gasoline, oil, lubricants, ammunition, and other essential supplies. During its three month lifetime, the amazing Red Ball Express moved an average of 5,000 tons of supplies every day. At the peak of its operation, it was running 5,938 vehicles carrying 12,342 tons of supplies to forward depots daily.

Red Ball Express in more Detail

No one had foreseen the need for the Red Ball Express. It arose from the mismatch between copious supplies piling up at the beachheads, and the needs of the unexpectedly rapidly advancing Allied armies, up to 400 miles distant. The circumstances allowed little time for advance planning or preparation; Red Ball was, as one observer noted, "largely an impromptu affair."

CPL Charles H. Johnson of the 783rd MP Bn, waves on a Red Ball Express motor convoy, near Alenon, France, 5 September 1944
CPL Charles H. Johnson of the 783rd MP Bn, waves on a Red Ball Express motor convoy, near Alenon, France, 5 September 1944.

Red Ball operations began on 25 August 1944, with 67 truck companies running along a restricted route from St Lo to Chartres, just south of Paris. It reached a peak four days later with 132 companies (nearly 6,000 vehicles) assigned to the project. Communications Zone (COMMZ) and Advance Section (ADSEC) transportation officials were responsible for overseeing Red Ball activities, but it required the support and coordination of many branches to succeed. While the Engineers were busy maintaining roads and bridges, MPs were on hand at each of the major check points to direct traffic and record pertinent data. Colorful signs and markers along the way - not unlike the old Burma-Shave signs that covered America's own countryside- kept drivers from getting lost, and at the same time publicized daily goals and achievements. Quartermaster's truck drivers, materiel handlers and petroleum specialists were ever present both along the route and at the forward area truckheads. Disabled vehicles were moved to the side of the road, where they were either repaired on the spot by roving Ordnance units or evacuated to rear area depots.

Round-the-clock movement of traffic required adherence to a strict set of rules. For instance, all vehicles had to travel in convoys and maintain 60-yard intervals. They were not to exceed the maximum speed of 25 mph and no passing was allowed. After dark, for safety reasons, Red Ball drivers were permitted the luxury of using full headlights instead of "cat's eyes" blackout lights. At exactly ten minutes before the hour each vehicle stopped in place for a ten minute break. Despite the careful controls, speeding, inexperienced drivers and overloaded trucks caused numerous accidents along the route of the Red Ball Express.

Bivouac areas were set up midway on the roads so exhausted drivers could get some rest and a hot meal. Most drivers soon picked up on handy tricks that come from living on the road, such as how to heat C-rations on the truck manifold or make hot coffee in a #10 can using a bit of gasoline.

POL (Petroleum-Oils-Lubricants) occupied prominent space on the Red Ball Express. In late August 1944, Gen. Eisenhower decided to direct most petroleum supplies to the First Army (Hodges) and the British 21st Army Group (Montgomery). This action was to come at the expense of Patton's Third Army to the South. On 31 August, Patton's daily allotment of gasoline dropped off sharply from 400,000 to 31,000 gallons. This placed a virtual strangle hold on the fiery commander, who fumed, pleaded, begged, bellowed and cursed accordingly - but to no avail. "My men can eat their belts," he was overhead telling Ike at a meeting on 2 September, "but my tanks gotta have gas." The logistical crisis threatened to halt the Allies where the enemy could not.

Fortunately, that crisis proved to be short lived. The hastily conceived Red Ball Express system served as a useful expedient for bringing POL items, especially gasoline, quickly to the fuel-starved front. Even though First and Third Army supply officers would continue bemoaning the gas shortage, the situation got markedly better. By the end of the first week in September, forward area truckheads were issuing POL as soon as it came in, and consumption rates were hitting the 800,000 gallons a day mark. The worst of Patton's gasoline woes ended almost as quickly as they had begun. Mid-September saw the two American Armies issuing in excess of one million gallons of gasoline daily, enough to meet the immediate needs and begin building slight reserves.

Red Ball was originally scheduled to run only until 5 September 1944, but in fact continued through mid-November. In all, it transported almost a half-million tons of supplies. The system moved fuel quickly, if not always efficiently, to where most needed to keep the Allied drive alive. Most importantly, the Red Ball Express bought precious time for the rear echelon support team to build up the railroads, port facilities, and pipelines needed to sustain the final offensive into Germany.

The work on the Red Ball Express was hardly glamorous, involving as it did endless hours of dull, hard, and sometimes dangerous work. Nonetheless, the Red Ball saga captured the media's attention, and had the effect of placing supply and service personnel in the spotlight for a change. After the war, movies, history books and novels retold the story of the heroic Red Ball Express and how their Herculean effort made Victory in Europe possible.

Communications Coordinating the Red Ball Express

Communications on the Red Ball Express was furnished by a six-station radio net, using the 100-mile range of the Radio Set SCR-399-(). The net enabled the motor transport brigade in charge of convoy movements along the 900 miles of designated highway to control traffic and to be kept advised of conditions all along the route.

The radio communication system went into operation late in August 1944. Net Control Station (NCS) was at Headquarters of the motor transport brigade and averaged 2,000 to 5,000 groups per day. A peak of 5,873 groups for one day was reached early in the system's operation.

When a convoy departed from the western terminus of the route, a message was forwarded to all stations along the highway as to the makeup of the convoy, its destination, and instructions for handling. Stations along the route kept the motor transport brigade, through the NCS, advised as to progress of convoys, calls for repair trucks, breakdowns, relief of personnel, etc.

In addition to the radio net, the motor transport brigade had four trunk circuits connected to the military switchboard in Paris. Communications between Advance Section (ADSEC) headquarters and Headquarters of the motor transport brigade was also maintained by GHQ trunk messenger service.

This page adapted from POL on the Red Ball Express by Dr. Steven E. Anders, Quartermaster Professional Bulletin, Spring 1989, and The Red Ball Express, 1944 by the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, along with other sources.

Recommended Books about the Red Ball Express

Recommended Video about the Red Ball Express

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