This Memorial Day as American honors fallen service members, it's worth a look back at a logistics success - and the people behind it - that helped shape the outcome of the Second World War. The Red Ball Express represents perhaps a lesser known example of WWII logistics, but one that was key to supplying the Allied victory in Europe. Logistics, after all, involves planning and moving product efficiently and securely from point A to point B - a necessity in a variety of scenarios, but especially during this high stakes conflict nearly 80 years ago.
It Starts After D-Day
D-Day of course describes the landing of thousands of Allied soldiers on the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944. While that in itself was a seminal moment in the war, it took more than a month for these service members to start moving across France and eventually cause a German retreat. Once that movement began in earnest though, forces routinely covered up to 80 miles a week - greatly outpacing their expected progress.
While that was a positive, it did create a problem. With supplies still based in Normandy and a French railroad system largely in shambles from bombings, the soldiers needed consistent food, fuel and ammo to maintain their campaign. And the complicating factor was that the supply runs required round trips between the frontlines and the base, which could slow things down considerably. That logistics problem led to the creation of the Red Ball Express.
What was the Red Ball Express and Why So Important?
The Red Ball Express was the name given to the truck convoy system created in response to the unique supply challenge created by the swift progress of Allied forces in Europe following D-Day. The massive undertaking came about in a 36-hour meeting combining many existing trucking efforts into one. And massive doesn't begin to describe the operation, which was named for a U.S. railroad tradition in which rail workers marked priority or expedited loads with a painted red ball (or red dot) on the car. They in fact, used the slang "red ball express" to refer to express freight.
The system sprang to life in the second half of August, 1944, with nearly 6,000, largely 2.5 ton cargo trucks making runs in a virtually nonstop loop from the base of supplies - which became the port of Cherbourg - to the frontlines. Drivers would work in two-man teams traversing one-way roads reserved for them and guarded by military police. Instead of the original plan of traveling in convoys 60 yards apart at 25 mph, trucks would leave individually as soon as they were loaded and often drove up to 60 mph. Still, the total roundtrip journey took roughly 54 hours through hazardous, war-torn conditions.
Red Ball Express by the Numbers
The Red Ball Express ran for nearly three months, through late November when the port of Antwerp opened to offer a new supply line. For that 83 day period, drivers delivered roughly 12,500 tons of supplies per day. Within that figure, a total of 412,000 tons of fuel, ammo and equipment made it to 28 different Allied divisions. All told, 5,958 trucks were operating at its peak, and roughly 23,000 troops were involved.
The People Behind the Red Ball Express
Of the 23,000 or so people who made the Red Ball Express tick, up to three-quarters were African American soldiers who were largely limited to non-combat units throughout the war. For perspective, nearly 30,000 soldiers landed on Omaha Beach at Normandy, and yet only about 500 of those were African American. In spite of the institutional racism at the time, soldiers of all stripes recognized the courage and dedication of the Red Ball Express crews.
These soldiers - many of whom were not experienced drivers at all - worked tirelessly. As part of the strategy, crews were only authorized 30 minute breaks for food every six hours, but for practicality reasons, soldiers would often skip them - even switching drivers while moving to avoid extra stops. And even though they often drove at night, they had to do so with either low-beam headlights or none at all to avoid making themselves easy German targets.
The Red Ball Express Award is given out yearly by the National Defense Industrial Association in honor of this transportation unit to recognize outstanding tactical wheeled vehicles contributions by organizations and individuals. And as members of the logistics industry, we recognize their contributions as well this Memorial Day, and every day.
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