Dr. Steven E. Anders
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin, Spring 1989
Getting fuel from the beach to the front lines as U.S. Divisions raced across France in 1944
The introduction of motorized vehicles and equipment at the beginning of the twentieth century has changed forever the face of battle. Since the time of Alexander the Great large armies have crossed the world’s military landscape with ponderous difficulty, their seemingly endless lines of animal-drawn carts and wagons trailing far behind. How different this is from the pace and dimension of modern warfare.
Today’s mechanized Army has the ability to cover vast distances at speeds unimagined by even the greatest of the Great Captains of old. That speed brought with it a need for new forms of fuel – in prodigious amounts to keep the engines of war running. Quartermasters who for centuries gathered huge stockpiles of hay, barley and oats to “fuel” past armies on the move, are now required to supply the petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) that make up the U.S. Army’s contemporary lifeblood.
The Army had begun serious experimentation with gasoline driven trucks and automobiles as early as 1911. In 1916, during the “Punitive Expedition” to Mexico, trucks were first used in a tactical setting by American troops abroad.
When the United States declared war on Germany the following year, Pershing took hundreds of motorized vehicles and equipment with him to France. This action spawned a huge, new appetite for POL.
Though fighting on the western front was relatively static, petroleum played a decisive role. It was, according to Clemenceau, “as necessary as blood.” The French expression “le sang rouge de guerre” “the red blood of war,” captures the significance of gasoline in modern war fighting. Said Churchill afterwards, we (the Allies) floated to victory “on a sea of oil.” All told, the American Expeditionary Force consumed nearly 40 million gallons of gasoline in World War I. This was an immense amount for the time, a mere fraction of what it would take to defeat Hitler’s Germany a generation later.
World War II was the first truly mechanized war, or as one observer put it, a “100 percent internal combustion engine war.” It placed unprecedented demand on Army Quartermasters for POL support around the world. Even the relatively small North African campaign of (code-named Operation TORCH) required no less than 10 million gallons of gasoline. Allied logisticians pushed the red stuff forward over the beaches and across parched deserts using 5-gallon “blitz” cans, tanker trucks, and miles of newly designed portable pipelines. This experience, coupled with the Sicilian and Italian campaigns that followed, served as a warm-up for the Normandy Invasion of June1944.
The cross-channel invasion known as Operation OVERLORD followed months of intensive preparation. During that time Allied logisticians in England worked out a detailed plan for POL support on the continent. All vehicles in the assault were to arrive on the beachhead with full tanks, carrying extra gasoline in 5 gallon jerrican. Packaged distribution was to continue throughout the operation’s initial phase (D-Day to D+41). Planners predicted a fairly slow-paced offensive thereafter, allowing for systematic construction of base, intermediate, and forward area depots. In the meantime, it was hoped that the early capture and development of Cherbourg’s port facilities (by around D + 15) would enable combat engineers to begin laying three 6-inch pipelines inland toward Paris.
Much depended upon the success of this operation. Pipelines were expected to eventually move about 90 percent of all POL entering the European Theater quickly and efficiently to forward area terminals or transfer points. Operation OVERLORD was officially scheduled to terminate on D + 90 with the forward line hopefully anchored on the banks of the Seine. The post-OVERLORD period (D + 91 to D + 360) would have the Army pushing steadily eastward to the Rhine, where it was assumed a final showdown would take place. From start to finish, planners expected well-placed bulk maintenance facilities to carry the lion’s share of POL support.
On D-Day itself events occurred much as planned from a POL perspective. The first assault vehicles rolled ashore and immediately began stacking their cargoes of 5-gallon cans. They were placed in small, widely scattered dump sites throughout the lodgment area. This simple method of open storage made Class III supply easily accessible. At the same time, this storage method rendered Class III supplies less vulnerable to enemy attack. By the end of the first week (D + 6) Quartermaster petroleum supply companies were on hand to begin moving these stores away from Omaha beach as the buildup continued.
German defenders fought tenaciously but failed to turn back the allied assault. By the end of June, the beachhead had expanded considerably. Allied combat units were rushing headlong in the infamous hedgerows some 25 miles beyond-there to engage in a bloody slugfest that lasted several weeks. The Allies’ inability to score a quick breakthrough anywhere along the line had both positive and negative effects on the supply situation. Since there was so little forward movement, reserve stockpiles grew at an accelerated pace. Approximately 177,000 vehicles and more than half of a million tons of supplies came ashore by D + 21. POL reserves at that time topped 7.5 million gallons. On the other hand, failure to capture Cherbourg as early as planned meant that the proposed pipeline schedule had to be voided. For weeks to come, all POL requirements would have to be met solely by packaged distribution.
A breakout finally occurred the last week of July. Following a massive aerial bombardment on the 25th, General Bradley’s First Army managed to rupture German lines to the right of St. Lo. The next day, three armored divisions poured rapidly through the gap and moved 25 miles south near the base of the Contentin peninsula. With the door forced wide open, new opportunities for early tactical success abounded. There was a chance that if the Allies moved fast, struck hard and pressed the fight, they might quickly defeat the entire German Army in France. In light of this largely unforeseen possibility, many of the preinvasion plans were summarily scrapped. First and Third Armies joined forces on 1 August (to form the U.S. 12th Army Group) and at once began exploiting the principle of maneuver warfare to the fullest.
The Germans offered even lighter resistance than expected. Success followed success in the Allied pursuit across France. As Patton’s Third Army swept westward into Brittany and south to Le Mans, it burned up an average of more than 380,000 gallons of gasoline per day. By 7 August (a week after becoming operational) its reserves were completely exhausted. Patton had to rely on daily truck loads of packaged POL from the rear. Nevertheless, he managed to continue this highly mobile type of warfare, driving eastward for another three weeks, before being halted by critical shortages of gasoline.
Logistically speaking, the real turning point in the campaign came during the week of 20-26 August. At that time, elements of both the First and Third Armies were simultaneously engaged in rapid pursuit. They developed an insatiable thirst for gasoline, and consumed more during this one week than any time previously. Average consumption was well over 800,000 gallons per day. The First Army alone (with about 60 percent of its total supply allocations made up of Class III type items) used 782,000 gallons of motor fuel on 24 August. The next day Allied forces closed in on the Seine and columns of U.S. And French troops entered Paris.
The decision to cross the Seine and immediately continue eastward, without waiting to more fully develop lines of communication, constituted a major departure from the OVERLORD plan. It posed serious difficulties for the theater logisticians, but was a gamble senior commanders were willing to risk. “The armies, said General Bradley, on 27 August, “will go as far as practicable and then wait until the supply system in rear will permit further advance.” Once across the Seine, forward divisions not only extended their lines, but fanned out in every direction creating a front twice as broad as previously. The strain on the supply system was immediately noticed as deliveries slowed to a trickle. The late August-early September operations were described by war correspondent Ernie Pyle as “a tactician’s hell and a quartermaster’s purgatory.”
Indeed It was both. Believing victory to be firmly within their grasp, the fast-moving armies had outrun their supply lines and were forced to live hand-to-mouth for several days. Ninety to ninety-five percent of all supplies on the continent still lay in base depots. In the vicinity of Normandy the First Army had in effect “leaped” more than 300 miles from Omaha beach in a month’s time. Third Army had done likewise. With the situation becoming daily more critical, it was time to begin what one historian labeled ‘frantic supply.”
In a desperate effort to bridge the gap between user units at the front and mounting stockpiles back at Normandy a long distance, one-way, “loop-run” highway system -the famed Red Ball Express-was born. Since circumstances allowed little time for advance planning or preparation, Red Ball was, as one observer noted, “largely an impromptu affair.” It began on 25 August, with 67 truck companies running along a restricted route from St Lo to Chartres, just south of Paris; and 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. Quartermasters truck drivers, materiel handlers and petroleum specialists were ever present both along the route and at the forward area truck-heads. Disabled vehicles 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 Red Ball drivers were permitted the luxury of using full headlights instead of “cat eyes” for safety reasons. At exactly ten minutes before the hour each vehicle stopped in place for a 10-minute break
Bivouac areas were set up midway on the roads so exhausted drivers could get some rest and a hot meal. (Incidentally, most drivers soon picked up on handy tricks that come from living on the road, such as how to heat C-rations on the manifold or make hot coffee in a number-10 can using a bit of gasoline.) At its height 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. Still, the job was hardly glamorous, involving as it did endless hours of dull, hard, and sometimes dangerous work, POL occupied prominent space on the Red Ball Express.
In late August, Eisenhower decided to forward 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 shortlived. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that Red Ball saved the day. The hastily conceived system served as a useful expedient for bringing class III 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 once again 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 scheduled to run only until 5 September, but continued through mid-November. In all, it transported more than 500,000 tons of supplies. The system moved fuel quickly, if not always efficiently, to where most needed to keep the drive alive. Most importantly, the Red Ball Express brought precious time for the rear echelon support team, allowing it to complete its task of building up the railroads, port facilities, and pipelines needed to sustain the final drive into Germany.
For over two months, the Red Ball Express did a magnificent job transporting petroleum over distances up to 400 miles. Quartermasters did their part by operating effectively as retailers of this product. However, success came with a price tag. Round-the-clock driving strained personnel and equipment. Continuous use of vehicles, without proper maintenance, led to their rapid deterioration and ultimately to a drain on parts and labor. Tire replacement alone nearly doubled from 29,142 just before Red Ball was launched to 55,059 in September. The situation was aggravated by driver abuse, such as speeding, and habitual overloading. Extreme fatigue also led to increased accidents, and even a few instances of sabotage, where drivers disabled their vehicles in order to rest.
Red Ball proved beyond a doubt the versatility and convenience of transporting gasoline in small 5 gallon containers. Jerricans required no special handling apparatus and were amenable to open storage without harmful effects.. However, at the very height of Red Ball activities forward movement of POL was threatened by a severe shortage of jerricans. The cans were carelessly discarded from the beachhead area and littered the route all the way to the front. The Chief Quartermaster’s highly publicized propaganda blitz and cash incentive program prompted local civilians to help round up “AWOL” jerryicans.” Still a jerrican shortage remained in effect until more cans were manufactured on the home front.
Finally, the Red Ball Express had an inherent problem in that it was fast approaching a point of diminishing returns. As the route got longer and longer, the Red Ball required more gasoline- ultimately as much as 300,000 gallons per day–just to keep the Red Ball vehicles themselves moving.
Dr. Steven E. Anders is the Quartermaster Corps Historian, U.S. Army Quartermaster School and Center, Fort Lee, Virginia