Red Ball Express
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The Red Ball Express was an enormous truck convoy system that supplied Allied forces moving quickly through Europe after breaking out from the D-Day beaches in Normandy in 1944. The route, marked with red balls, was closed to civilian traffic; the trucks were marked with the same red balls and also given priority on regular roads.
The system, which originated in an urgent 36-hour meeting, began operating on August 25, 1944. It ran until November 16, when the port facilities at Antwerp, Belgium, were opened, some French rail lines were repaired, and portable gasoline pipelines were deployed.
The Red Ball Express was primarily operated by African-American soldiers.
The use of a red ball for signaling was used as early as the 1800s, with a flag with a red ball on a white field indicating the important ship of a vice admiral.
The term "Red Ball" was later a railroad phrase referring to express shipping for priority and perishables (originated by the Santa Fe system ~ 1892, extensively used by 1920s), where the trains were marked with red balls and the cleared express use tracks were marked with red balls.
The French railway system had been destroyed by Allied air power before the D-Day invasion to deny its use to German forces, leaving trucks as the only way to move supplies across France.
After the Allied breakout and the race to the Seine River, there were 28 Allied divisions in the field. During offensive operations, each division would consume about 750 tons of supplies per day, a total of about 20,000 tons. At its peak, the Red Ball Express operated 5,958 vehicles and carried about 12,500 tons of supplies per day. Colonel Loren Albert Ayers, known to his men as "Little Patton," was in charge of gathering two drivers for every truck, obtaining special equipment, and training port battalion personnel as drivers for long hauls. Able-bodied soldiers attached to other units whose duties were not critical were made drivers. Almost 75% of Red Ball drivers were African Americans.
In order to keep the supplies flowing without delay, two routes were opened from Cherbourg to the forward logistics base at Chartres. The northern route was used for delivering supplies, the southern for returning trucks. Both roads were closed to civilian traffic.
"The highways in France are usually good, but are ordinarily not excessively wide. The needs of the rapidly advancing armies, consequently, promptly put the greatest possible demands upon them. To ease this strain, main highways leading to the front were set aside very early in the advance as "one way" roads from which all civil and local military traffic were barred. Tens of thousands of truckloads of supplies were pushed forward over these one way roads in a constant stream of traffic. Reaching the supply dumps in the forward areas, the trucks unloaded and returned empty to Arromanches, Cherbourg and the lesser landing places by way of other one way highways. Even the French railroads were, to some degree, operated similarly, with loaded trains moving forward almost nose to tail."— For Want of a Nail: The Influence of Logistics on War (1948) by Hawthorne Daniel
Only convoys of at least five trucks were allowed, to be escorted in front and behind by a jeep. In reality, it was not uncommon for individual trucks to depart Cherbourg as soon as they were loaded. It was also common to disable the engine governors to travel faster than 56 miles per hour (90 km/h).
The convoys were a primary target of the German Luftwaffe. By 1944, however, German air power was so reduced that even these tempting and typically easy targets were rarely attacked. The biggest problems facing the Express were maintenance, finding enough drivers, and lack of sleep for overworked truckers.
In popular culture
- "The Red Ball Express, 1944". U.S. Army Transportation Museum. Retrieved December 31, 2013.
- Railroad gazette. Railroad gazette. 1905. pp. 184–. Retrieved 13 January 2012.
- The Real History of World War II: A New Look at the Past by Alan Axelrod, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2008, ISBN 1-4027-4090-5, ISBN 978-1-4027-4090-9
- Rudi Williams (February 15, 2002). "African Americans Gain Fame as World War II Red Ball Express Drivers". United States Department of Defense. Retrieved September 9, 2012.
- Roland G. Ruppenthal (1995). The European Theater of Operations: Logistical Support of the Armies Vol 1. Washington,D.C.: US Army Center of Military History. p. 560.
- Daniel, Hawthorne. 1948. For Want of a Nail: The Influence of Logistics on War. New York: Whittlesey House. Pages 270-271.
- David P. Colley (2000). The Road to Victory: The Untold Story of World War II's Red Ball Express. Potomac Books. ISBN 1-57488-173-6.
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