Fifty-eight years ago this month, Nazi Germany launched its last major offensive of World War II — the Battle of the Bulge. There have been many books and movies on this epic fight, but most of them overlook a key player in the eventual Allied victory: trucks. The pivotal role trucks played in this battle also helped drive their widespread use after the war for commercial purposes back in the U.S.
Trucks helped win the day at the Bulge and for the Allied European offensive in general. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the largely African-American soldiers of the U.S. Army's Transportation Corps, thousands of trucks in convoys stretching hundreds of miles kept the Allies supplied with ammunition, food, fuel and medical provisions.
Called the Red Ball Express, these truckers achieved a logistical feat never equaled in the history of modern warfare. With railroads largely bombed out of existence in prelude to Allied landings at Normandy, and with the Nazis still holding key European seaports, the only way to keep the Allied armies supplied was by truck. The largely unsung efforts of America's black soldiers-men subjected to segregation both at home and in Europe-were key to defeating Nazi Germany.
It was during the Battle of the Bulge that the truck came into its own as a logistics tool. On December 16, 1944, Hitler launched 25 German infantry and tank divisions through the Ardennes forest against ill-equipped American infantry units. The Nazi forces had been given new tanks and winter supplies, whereas the Americans were still shivering in summer uniforms. The Nazis punched a huge hole in the Allied line and raced towards the Belgian port of Antwerp, their ultimate objective.
Hitler estimated it would take two or three days for the Allies to figure out what was happening and another three to move reinforcements into the area. By then, he expected that his forces would have captured needed gasoline and be on the outskirts of Antwerp.
That's where General Dwight Eisenhower — and the truck — proved Hitler wrong.
By December 17, Eisenhower knew he had a major disaster in the making. So he turned to trucks to save the day. He ordered all Red Ball Express trucks to drop what they were doing, pick up the 82nd and 101st paratrooper divisions, and head for the town of Bastogne — a town at that was key to the success of Hitler's Ardennes offensive. Eisenhower hoped these troops would slow the Nazis down long enough for him to bring reinforcements from other Allied armies. They did just that and a whole lot more, becoming legends in the process.
“By driving its trucks with headlights on through the night, they reached the town in 24 hours, just ahead of the Germans,” wrote William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
In the end, the Battle of the Bulge was the largest logistical operation it ever mounted by the U.S. army, according to the late historian Stephen E. Ambrose. In one day, 11,000 trucks and trailers put 60,000 men in front of the Nazi advance. In the first week of the 40-day battle, Eisenhower was able to shift 250,000 men and 50,000 vehicles — tanks, half-tracks mounted with howitzers, etc. — into battle and stop the Nazi offensive.
Their victory sealed Germany's fate, destroying two armies worth of men and material that could have stalled American, British and Russian forces in Europe for another year at least.
It also shed new light on the potential of the truck for both military and civilian endeavors — potential still being tapped today.