The Red Ball Express

In 2019 we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy, and the rapid progress of the Allied forces across Western Europe in the first few months of the campaign. The success of the Allies was made possible by the men who helped bring supplies to the front line, such as the personnel of the Red Ball Express. The Red Ball Express was a truck convoy which supplied U.S. forces between August 25th and November 16th 1944, and which contributed enormously to the success of the armies. The convoy was staffed largely by African-American soldiers, who worked tirelessly to supply the front line.

American soldier stands next to a sign denoting the Red Ball Express Highway in Normany, 1944. (Photo credit: US Army Transportation Museum, Fort Eustis, VA)

The convoy name was derived from a rail term meaning to prioritise. The route was intended as a one-way express loop highway, and the supply trucks were meant to have exclusive use of the route. It was signposted with red balls and warning signs for other vehicles to stay off the highway, although other military and civilian vehicles often disregarded this, causing disruptions and delays.

The original routes ran from Cherbourg to Chartres, bringing supplies to General George S. Patton’s Third Army and the US First Army. The routes were later extended as far as Sommesous and Soissons. Within days of being operational the convoy reached its peak in terms of supply, delivering over 12.000 tons of supplies and using close to 6.000 trucks.

The urgency of supplying the front line meant that the convoys ran twenty-four hours a day. Driving at night proved difficult, as the truck headlights needed to be masked with ‘cat-eye’ covers to prevent the convoys from being detected and attacked by German planes. Truck drivers also had to contend with landmines and snipers, as well as shrapnel and barbed wire, which shredded tires. Simple fatigue was also an issue for the drivers who often worked more than twenty-four hours at a time.

The Red Ball Express was discontinued in mid-November when more efficient means of transporting supplies became possible. In expressing his gratitude to the supply convoys in October 1944, Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower described the Red Ball Express route as “the lifeline between combat and supply [...] without which the armies might fail.”

“the lifeline between combat and supply [...] without which the armies might fail.”

- General Dwight Eisenhower

During the brief 83-day lifespan of the Red Ball Express, the convoy had transported more than 400.000 tons of supplies to the front line using around six thousand trucks. Around 23.000 men had worked on the route, 75 % of whom were African-American. Racial policy in the US dictated the number of African-American recruits in the armed forces, and they accounted for a mere 8% of US troops stationed in Europe throughout the war. While a proportion of these troops took up combat roles, the majority of African American soldiers were assigned to service roles such as the Red Ball Express.

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