The German Army was a military wonder at the beginning of World War II, thanks to visionary generals who grasped the concept of mechanized warfare early on and perfected techniques for hitting their enemies hard and fast. And the effectiveness of this new type of warfare became apparent as soon as the war began, with the Wehrmacht rolling over France, Belgium, Norway, The Low Countries and Russia with apparent ease.
But there was a fatal flaw with the Germans’ approach to motorized war, as genius and powerful as it was: logistics.
It seems hard to believe, given the modern, motorized hardware at the front of the German columns driving deep into enemy territory, but even well into the war, the logistics train following those tanks, trucks and scout cars, carrying vital food, ammunition and supplies, were largely horse-drawn wagons.
This was the case all throughout the war. Once air superiority over Europe was achieved, American fighter pilots would shoot up columns of horses and wagons moving on the roads.
A Different View of Logistics
The American Army, on the other hand, had a far different view of logistics. This was due to a number of factors. The United States was already the leading automotive manufacturer in the world before World War II. And the vast distances across North America meant there was already an embryonic, mostly regional, trucking industry in operation by the time the war began. So there was simply a lot more experience among the American population with trucks and motorized logistics than there was on the German side.
Another advantage the Americans had was Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who, as a young lieutenant in 1919, had been tasked with leading an experimental convoy of trucks across the United States to determine how reliable motor vehicles were and how long such an exercise would take.
It was a grueling affair. But it left a lasting impression on Eisenhower. He had faith in the reliability of trucks and understood how they could be used to keep an army in the field supplied while it was on the move.
Enter the Red Ball Express
Due to institutionalized racism prevalent at the time, African-American soldiers were given few opportunities during the war to serve in front-line combat units. They were mostly relegated to support roles in the Armed Forces. But one vital area they were allowed to serve in was in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps as truck drivers — and it was a job they took seriously and excelled at.
Once the U.S. Army broke out of Normandy following the D-Day landings in France, it was these African-American truck drivers, lurching around on hard seats in bare-bone, unheated Studebaker, General Motors, Ford, White, and Dodge trucks, who ran hard on the heels of the Army as they chased the Germans out of France and back into Germany.
They were known as the Red Ball Express. And these convoys of trucks, working in unbelievably harsh conditions, drove around the clock, with drivers getting little or no rest, to get supplies to the front-line troops.
While it wasn’t technically a “combat” assignment, the reality was that Red Ball drivers were constantly exposed to enemy air, infantry and artillery attacks – not to mention the dangers of running as fast as possible on slick, bumpy roads, even at night with minimized “blackout” headlights providing barely enough forward visibility to see.
The Red Ball Express was trucking's great contribution to the Allied Victory in World War II. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the sacrifice and dedication of brave African-American soldiers risking their lives daily.