Operation Bolero transformed England into a gigantic pre-invasion storehouse of war materiel.
Even those who know very little about World War II are still likely to recognize the code name Operation Overlord, the designation for the assault on Adolf Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
Other pieces of the Allies’ strategic puzzle, however, have received less attention, including operations with such names as Fortitude, Cockade, Glimmer, Hambone/Copperhead, Titanic, Torture, Bodyguard, Turtle, Skye, Vendetta and Taxable. While most of these obscure operations involved covert efforts to deceive the Germans as to the actual time and place of the D-Day invasion or clandestine strikes by Resistance organizations, one of the most formidable undertakings in modern military history involved the more mundane consideration of logistics.
Operation Bolero came into being in April 1942, more than two years before the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Its purpose was the transfer of fighting men and equipment from the United States and Canada to England to support an envisioned cross-Channel invasion in 1943. Before Allied forces in the West were strong enough to gain and maintain a lodgment on the European continent, a massive buildup of supplies would be required to support such an endeavor. An organization called Services of Supply (SOS), part of the U.S. Army, was given responsibility for the colossal logistical effort. Just getting the fighting men and materiel to England was a challenge in itself, but feeding, clothing and housing the soldiers once they reached Great Britain was an even bigger challenge. Simply storing the thousands of aircraft and armored vehicles being brought over meant that every vacant field in England was a potential parking lot.
Stately English manor houses surrendered their grounds for use as parking sites. Soldiers were often billeted near the local populations, and a familiar complaint about the Americans in Britain was that they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here!” Nevertheless, the transfer of supplies and men to England was necessary, and the steady stream of both seemed unending.
At the height of Operation Bolero, English ports were choked with shipping of every description. Ultimately, more than 6,900 vessels, including six battleships, 22 cruisers, hundreds of destroyers, landing craft and support ships, were assembled in English harbors. More than 10,000 aircraft–fighters, bombers and transports–were eventually lined up to add weight to the Allied sledgehammer and painted with distinctive black-and-white invasion stripes for easier recognition as friend rather than foe. A total of 1,000 locomotives and 20,000 railroad cars were just a small part of the 5 million tons of supplies that were brought to Great Britain.
Operation Bolero transformed England into what Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower later called “the greatest operating military base of all time.” Bolero got off to a slow start with the transfer of 24,682 men to England in May 1942. Although Bolero officially ceased when significant numbers of troops were later diverted to participate in Operation Torch in November 1942, the transfers of troops to Great Britain continued unabated and steadily climbed to a high of 216,699 per month in the spring of 1944.
Before the Allied buildup ended, a staggering 1.5 million personnel had been transferred. They lived in 111,590 existing buildings requisitioned for the purpose, 398,666 huts made of prefabricated material and 279,204 tents. When Operation Overlord was set in motion, the shipment of men and materiel to Britain had consumed more than 400 million hours of labor and nearly $650 million in construction costs.
While most of the construction was rather ordinary, some of the projects undertaken were truly startling in their complexity and achievement. Project Mulberry, the fabrication of two huge artificial harbors to facilitate the offloading of troops and supplies on the Normandy beaches, was an outgrowth of Operation Bolero. The story of this massive undertaking is told in this issue. Another amazing logistical achievement involved the construction of 20 underwater pipelines that pumped a million gallons of gasoline a day across the Channel.
Operation Bolero was a monumental task that tested the supply and transport capabilities of the Allies, particularly when the demands of the Pacific theater and the Lend-Lease aid program to the Soviet Union are considered. While there may be some question as to the value of other aspects of the Allied preparations for D-Day, it would be hard to argue against the statement that without the logistical achievements of Operation Bolero, there would have been no Operation Overlord.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II