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Logistics and the Tide of War

As someone who covers the supply chain and an armchair historian, I’m naturally intrigued by wartime logistics. It was Napoleon who said, “Armies march on their stomachs.”

In the Oxford Companion to World War II, Charles Messenger wrote, “Before the coming of the railway and invention of the internal combustion engine, armies subsisted largely by foraging, both for food and fuel, the latter, of course, being horse feed.”

Things have changed. On my seemingly endless list of books to read is a new one that delves deeply into military logistics: Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy (Random House).

A review in the History Book Club says, “Perhaps above all, successful systems emphasized organization and supported those who could manage organizations. These “middle people,” problem-solvers in uniforms, in lab coats, and in business suits, were the keys that turned the Allies’ war from improvised resistance into irreversible advance.”

The most complex logistical problem of the war (and probably ever) was the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. Overlord was the code name for the overall operation; Neptune, the code name for the assault phase at the five beaches; and Bolero, the code name for the logistics function.

When Bolero was at its height, more than 31,000 officers and 350,000 enlisted men were involved in the logistics. The numbers they dealt with were staggering: On D-Day, the Allies landed around 156,000 troops in Normandy. The American forces numbered 73,000 on Omaha and Utah Beaches, along with 15,500 airborne troops. In the British and Canadian sector, 83,115 troops were landed on Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches, along with 7,900 airborne troops.

It goes on: 11,590 aircraft were available to support the landings. On D-Day, Allied aircraft flew 14,674 sorties, and 127 were lost. In the airborne landings on both flanks of the beaches, 2,395 aircraft and 867 gliders of the RAF (Royal Air Force) and USAAF (U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the Air Force) were used on D-Day.

Operation Neptune involved huge naval forces, including 6,939 vessels: 1,213 naval combat ships, 4,126 landing ships and landing craft, 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels. Some 195,700 personnel were assigned to Operation Neptune: 52,889 U.S., 112,824 British, and 4,988 from other Allied countries. At the end of D-Day +5 (June 11), 11, 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies had been landed on the beaches.

Of course, all those men, weapons and machines had to fed and cared for. Quite a daunting task. And the ROI was merely saving the world from totalitarianism!