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MARK R. HENRY, MIKE CHAPPELLTHE
The GIs who hit 'Omaha' and 'Utah' beaches on 6 June 1944 were members of the finest-equipped mechanised army ever assembled. As Allied, and particularly American strength continued to build up in Normandy, the threadbare but still potent Wehrmacht soon came to realise they had an elephant by the tail. After the August break-out from Normandy and the landings in the south of France the ever more powerful US armies aggressively pursued the Germans across France in a classic demonstration of exploitation warfare. Even so, in some quarters there was still some jealous questioning as to the professionalism and endurance of the lavishly supplied and self-confident GI. Some British and German leaders, harking back to the US Army's blooding at Kasserine Pass in February 1943, wondered if the Americans would prove to have a glass jaw when the going got tough. (This was not, it must be said, a doubt harboured by any who had seen the fighting in Normandy from close up, from either side of the front.) The 'Battle of the Bulge' in December 1944 would be the test.
Heavily attacked by superior German armour, outnumbered and without air support, the US Army was on its own in the Ardennes. A large portion of the green l06th Division held its position for a short time and then gave way in the biggest US surrender since Kasserine. The surprised Americans bent - but did not break. Bastogne was stubbornly held, and Germany's finest remaining Panzer troops were constantly bedevilled by skilled US delaying actions. By 1 January 1945 the Wehrmacht had suffered crippling losses without even approaching their objective, and the line was soon restored. The Battle of the Bulge had proven the battle worthiness of the GI, and was, in Prime Minister Churchill's words, 'truly an American victory'.
Despite America's apparently limitless manufacturing capacity and generous scales of issue for almost every necessity, one factor had a baleful effect on US operations - and on the daily conditions faced by many US soldiers - throughout NW Europe in the second half of 1944. The problem was not producing what was needed, or shipping it to Europe; it was getting it out of the ships and up to the front-line units when, where and in the quantities required. The overall supply situation in the ETO was poor, clue in about equal measure to shortages of transportation and bad decisions on logistics taken by the staff at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces).
This portrait of a war-weary sergeant is typical of a US tanker in the ETO in the winter of 1944/45. Note the connector jack on his right shoulder, hanging from his helmet; this connector pulled out easily if a crew had to abandon a burning tank in a hurry. Shortly after this photo was taken its subject, Sgt John H.Parks from Mill Creek, Indiana, was killed in action in Germany.
Eisenhower's staff had planned for a steadily progressing advance with the Allies reaching the German border in early 1945. This would give time to clear the ports in western France and to move supplies forward in a timely fashion. While the battle for Normandy ran behind schedule, the leap across France in August/September 1944 quickly outran all logistical planning. With the now distant ports still slow to clear, supplies continued to come in over Omaha beach. The 'Red Ball Express' priority trucking route (so named for the red mark used in the 1930s on priority railroad cars) gave some relief, as did the use of aircraft for cargo runs to the front. Railroads would have been the most efficient means of transport, but France's network, ripped up by Allied bombing in the weeks before D-Day, took a long time to rebuild. The opening of southern French ports after the 'Anvil' landings in August made some difference; but the failure of the British/Canadian Twenty-First Army Group to seize the estuaries at Antwerp, the greatest port in the Low Countries, left the Allies logistically adrift. The grand pursuit across France by the 1st and 3rd US Armies, and by Twenty-First Army Group in the Netherlands, ground to a standstill in September; and each of the Allied army commanders sought to pressure SHAEF into granting him priority of supply as they argued over the conflicting strategies of 'narrow thrust' and 'broad advance'. Such absolute basics as ammunition and gasoline became critical items. Eisenhower opted to bring ashore more combat units, but the transport to move them to the front was already consumed in running supplies to meet existing demands. Some 60 to 100 cargo ships collected off Cherbourg, waiting for dock space; and in September it began to get rainy and cold.
Ardennes, December 1944: coming in from manning a night roadblock, these three GIs (including two carrying bazookas) are lucky to have cold/wet weather footwear - in the foreground, four-clip M1942 overshoes. The man on the left wears the big fitted woollen anti-gas hood for warmth. From the diamond shape of the shoulder patch on the centre man's overcoat these soldiers could be from the 5th or 26th Divisions.
Stocks of gas, ammunition, blankets, tyres and winter uniforms all became critically short. The new buckled combat boot was now being issued, and it was felt that if treated with dubbin it would serve well enough as a winter boot for France. The war, however, was in Belgium, on the German border and in the Vosges mountains. The new boots were found to have little capacity to resist water or give warmth. With the Battle of the Bulge raging in December, winter overshoes and shoepacs became a priority; during that month the US Army in the ETC) lost 56,000 men to non-battle causes such as frostbite and trench foot - by January 1945 these losses were almost equal to battle casualties. Winter boots finally arrived in significant numbers by late January. Overcoats and the new M1 943 four-pocket combat jackets were also in short supply, since they had not been ordered or brought forward from the rear area Communications Zone (COM Z). The winter of 1944/45 also caught the US Army with few white camouflage suits (reversible anoraks) available at the front. White cotton bedsheets were pressed into service, cut and sewn by local civilians, QM and the GIs. Besides whitewashing vehicles and helmets, some men actually oversprayed their uniforms and equipment. Issue hooded snow camouflage suits finally began to appear in January. With the rapidly approaching spring the demand for such special items receded; and the Belgian ports also began to open.