Letter from Military History – Aug/Sept 2009

Supply and Speed

While it is something of a truism that “amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics”—a line attributed to various generals—it is a longstanding truth that armies cannot campaign successfully without adequate supplies. Soldiers require the human essentials of food, shelter and clothing, in addition to weapons, ammunition and, in the modern era, piles of hardware. That brings up the matter of transport—how to move all that gear reliably and rapidly over land and sea to where it is needed.

Logistics is, therefore, a requisite aspect of warfare, dating from at least the campaigns of Egypt’s Thutmose III, who in 1471 BC successfully mounted a seaborne invasion of Lebanon with a task force of some 10,000 troops, 500 chariots and 1,000 horses—not to mention tons of fodder. While the discipline has never gotten the attention it deserves, all wise generals from Julius Caesar to Norman Schwarzkopf recognize its import. History is rife with the names of victorious generals, but who remembers the masters of logistics? Who outside the U.S. Army recognizes, for instance, the name Gus Pagonis? But those who do know him as Lt. Gen. William Pagonis are aware that he was, as one author wrote, “the logistical wizard behind the Allied success in Operation Desert Storm.” He was the guy who in 1991 got the tanks—and everything else—to the fight on time; in other words, he made it possible for Norman to do his Gulf War stormin’.

Among the few times in living memory a logistics operation attained popular fame was in late 1944, when the rapid Allied advance from Normandy across France outpaced its supply lines. With the French railway system largely inoperable due to Allied bombing, an ad hoc, around-the-clock transport operation known as the Red Ball Express employed thousands of ubiquitous “deuce-and-a-half” trucks to move more than 400,000 tons of supplies—including food, fuel and ammunition—in just three months. In fact, the impressive express inspired an eponymous 1952 film—a rare instance of logistics taking Hollywood by storm.

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