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Refuel on the Move: Resupplying Patton’s Third Army

Captain Daniel G. Grassi
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin – Summer 1993

“We held the enemy by the nose and kicked him in the pants.” Speaking to a crowd of tired GIs in the French city of Metz in November 1944, LTG George S. Patton, commander of the Third Army, summed up the recently completed World War II offensive. A historic fortress of a city, Metz, had long been a pain in Patton’s neck. Along with other areas of French Lorraine, Metz had been among the Third Army’s toughest engagements of the entire war.

Early in the campaign, the nine divisions comprising the Third Army were measuring their daily achievements in quick miles. However, by September, the fast-moving “Lucky Forward” was lucky to be counting its advancements in yards. The key was logistics.

On 28 August, Patton summed it up this way, “At the present time our chief difficulty is not the Germans, but gasoline. If they would give me enough gas, I could go all the way to Berlin!”

Ready to Attack

Not surprisingly, the limitations of logistics weighed heavily on the tactical decisions of commanders on the offensive. By mid-September the Allied armies stood ready to attack on the German border in the north and on the banks of the Moselle River in the south. After successes before this, the armies were stopped short, mainly because of breakdowns in the supply system. Especially frustrating to tactical commanders such as Patton, these shortages took their heaviest toll on the soldiers who thought that the war was finally coming to an end. What went wrong? By studying logistics support to heavy units such as Patton’s Third Army, Quartermasters of today will better be able to win on the battlefields of tomorrow.

After becoming operational on 1 Aug 44, Patton’s Third Army moved quickly and struck hard into the German defenses. After racing past the German Seventh Army and tearing into the German forces from all four directions at once, Patton’s ruthless and reckless style earned him a reputation by both Allied and Axis forces.

German Army Group B Commander, Guenther von Kluge, reported the success of Patton: “As a result of the breakthrough of the enemy armored spearheads, the whole Western Front has been ripped wide open.”

By mid-August Patton was driving virtually unopposed through France and had his sights set firmly on the Rhine. “We have been going so fast.” Patton wrote, “that our chief difficulty consists in our inability to keep our spiderweb behind us. Our supply people, however, have really done marvels, and we always have sufficient of everything….”

Red Ball Express

While Patton was racing through France consuming an average of 350,000 gallons of gasoline each day, the famous Red Ball Express was organized to meet his growing demands as well as those of the First Army. Essentially a nonstop convoy of trucks connecting supply depots in Normandy to the armies in the field, the Red Ball at its peak used 6,000 trucks to complete its missions. As Patton advanced deeper, the demands placed upon the Red Ball grew faster than it was able to supply. Using 300,000 gallons of fuel each day itself, the Express pointed out what was becoming grossly obvious to tactical commanders, the Allies were running out of gas. On 28 August, Patton’s army was forced to ease up when its fuel allocation fell 100,000 gallons short. Even though gasoline was in abundance in Normandy, the Red Ball could not transport it in sufficient quantities to the Third’s forward units. On 31 August, after receiving no fuel at all, Patton’s spearheads came to a halt.

During the next week, as Patton idled in park, General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave logistics priority and fuel allocations to units farther north. By the time normal fuel allocations resumed in the Third Army, the opportunity to sweep through Lorraine freely had passed by Patton.

Concurrently with his fuel problems, Patton experienced two other situations which began to jab at his side during this first part of September. First, as the Third Army became more stationary, it began to use its larger caliber artillery weapons, causing an ammunition shortage. There was no way to build up ammunition stockage because all available trucks were transporting fuel. As the Lorraine campaign continued, shortages would also be felt in clothing, rations, tires and antifreeze for the quickly approaching winter months.

Massing Forces

Secondly, as Patton’s armies waited for the supply train to catch up, the Germans were massing forces throughout Lorraine. Hitler ordered soldiers into the area at once and their numbers would increase greatly. Even though still outnumbered by Patton’s forces and superior firepower (estimated at 20 to 1 in tanks), these German forces, made up of many sick, deaf and garrison soldiers, would contest every inch of ground. This resistance caused the Third Army to fight considerably harder than they were accustomed during the first months of the campaign. Patton’s two Corps, the XX and the XII, made up of four to six infantry divisions and two or three armor divisions, would be responsible for most fighting during the next bloody months in France.

In 1944, an armor division was relatively small compared to today. With 11,000 men and 263 tanks, it had three tank battalions, three battalions of armored infantry and three battalions of self- propelled artillery. Tactical doctrine of the day said that the armor division was primarily a weapon of exploitation to be used after the infantry achieved initial penetration into enemy defenses. This doctrine suited Patton to a tee, as he employed the mobile, quick-moving M-4 Sherman tank with its multipurpose 75mm gun. Patton’s success, largely due to his understanding and use of heavy armored vehicles, made him the chief concern of the German armies of the time.

On 25 September, Patton was ordered to halt and to hold his ground until the logistical tail could restock itself before continuing. Patton, not being one to sit around and wait, established outposts, while maintaining active reserve contingency forces, and began to restock his own logistical base from within. Strict gasoline rationing and using mortars instead of large caliber weapon rounds lessened the initial two concerns of the Third Army. How do you resupply a heavy armor division in combat? Here’s how Patton did it.

Quartermasters Important

First, Patton ordered stringent accountability of all supplies. The Quartermasters, due in large part to the severity of the crisis, were elevated in importance. Patton relied upon them for guidance and expertise. In addition to rationing supplies, he ordered that a supply base of reserves be stored within the Third Army for when they became fully operational again. His intelligence officers provided data on German movements in the area, and Patton wanted to be ready to move out at full speed when told to do so. No stopping the Third Army now, Patton must have thought. He did not realize then that he would basically be stationary until 8 Nov 44.

While better managing his own supplies, Patton also used other means of collecting additional assets from the local areas. Supplies and equipment from captured German forces were put to great use replenishing the Allied stocks. Once it was even reported that an artillery barrage from the XX Corps zone came from captured German 105mm howitzers, Russian-made 76.2mm guns, French 155mm howitzers (also captured from the Germans), and German 88mm antitank guns. During one period in October, 80 percent of artillery ammunition used by XX Corps was captured from German units.

Another key factor in resupplying Patton’s Third Army was his use of what we now call “host nation support” from the French. As he was chasing the Germans through France, Patton became very familiar with the extensive French railroad network. Fortunately, it was left virtually undamaged by the Germans as they retreated through the country. Working with French civilians, the Third Army operated these railroads themselves, at times bringing supplies farther forward than ever before. In addition to the railroads, French factories provided relief for the Allies in such areas as repairing tank engines, building tank escape hatches and track extenders (which increased the tanks’ mobility in the muddy terrain), supplying thousands of gallons of alcohol instead of the scarce Prestone antifreeze, reopening coal mines and dry-cleaning plants, and turning the rubber manufacturing plants over to Patton for the production of much-needed fan belts and tires.

Panzer Divisions

By the time November rolled around and the Third Army was able to start moving again, they had replenished their depleted stocks and had built a substantial reserve. With many of his logistical nightmares behind him for the moment, Patton could concentrate on the tactical campaign at hand and the difficulties that he was experiencing with the feared German panzer divisions. Even though greatly outnumbered, the Germans took advantage of Patton’s weaknesses in neglecting to practice economy of force and were able to wage several counterattacks into the Allied forces. Patton believed that he should spread out his Third Army over a vast front so that he would be strong in all areas. This philosophy backfired on him, however, because the forces were spread too thin and were not particularly strong anywhere. As a result of this error, heavy doctrine changed after the war from fighting dispersed to marching dispersed but fighting concentrated and tight. Patton’s Third Army suffered many casualties for not realizing this sooner against the German armies.

The campaign through Lorraine. France, in World War II truly demonstrated that logistics is the key to battle. Patton was an aggressive and powerful commander, but logistics controlled his ability to maneuver. At the beginning of the campaign, when he raced through France gambling with tactics and doctrine wherever he went, he achieved great successes. However, by September he realized that eventually in logistics you must repay and restock the hands that are feeding you. His neglect of fuel and ammunition shortages cost the entire army until finally he was forced to stop and regroup. His reliance on the Red Ball Express was too great. Not until he realized that it was consuming more than it was delivering did Patton turn to the more reliable means of rail transport and local requisitioning for resupply.

Patton’s Third Army during the Lorraine campaign could not declare complete victory. In just over three months, the Third Army suffered 50,000 casualties and lost enormous amounts of equipment. The real victory of Lorraine was the soldier’s ability to maintain the fight and the logisticians’ ability to resupply the force. Fighting seemingly insurmountable odds and harsh weather conditions, Quartermasters of the day came through by using ingenuity, expertise, sheer hard work and determination.

Fight for Today

Look at the past, look towards the future, fight for today. Logisticians must be able to adapt and overcome, whatever odds may be in their way. The battle must continue for us all to win. Patton summed it up this way:

“You know that I have never asked one of you to go where I have feared to tread. I have been criticized for this, but there are many General Pattons and there is only one Third Army. I can be expended, but the Third Army must and will be victorious.”

Leaders come and go, but the Army and the battle will continue. Will you be ready to support?

At the time this article was published, CPT Daniel G. Grassi was the Military Editor of the Quartermaster Professional Bulletin. He has a bachelor of arts degree in history from Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina. He is also a graduate of the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course, Quartermaster Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, Combined Arms and Services Staff School, Subsistence Officer Course, Contracting Officers Representative Course and the Installation Logistics Management Course. His previous assignments include Fire Direction Officer, Battery Executive Officer, Assistant Brigade S4, Troop Issue Subsistence Officer, Retail Services Officer, Battalion S1 and Commander, Uniform Company, 262d Quartermaster Battalion, Fort Lee, Virginia.