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New Book Highlights Heroism of U.S. Army Colonel, Engineers, Railway Personnel

80 years ago today, 133,000 Allied troops stormed the shores of Normandy, France.

So, you’re probably reading lots of stories about June 6, 1944. The heroic landings, the bloody battles and the thousands of troops who lost their lives helped doom Nazi Germany’s chokehold over Europe.

That’s all crucial, important stuff to know. But long before the term supply chain hit the news during the 2020 pandemic, supply chain pros helped win wars.

That’s why I was pleased to see Christian Wolmar’s new book. The Liberation Line: The Untold Story of How American Engineering and Ingenuity Won World War II chronicles how American and British engineers rebuilt Europe’s ravaged railways following D-Day. Without these efforts, World War II could have raged on into 1946.

In other words, Wolmar tells a strategic supply chain tale.

Why Rail Was Key to Post D-Day Logistics

I first learned about the book via an excerpt in The Telegraph. There, Wolmar highlighted U.S. Army Col. Emerson Itschner. You’ve likely never heard of him, but he commanded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in northern France after D-Day.

On Saturday, Aug. 12, 1944, Gen. George S. Patton ordered repairs to the railway between Normandy and Le Mans. Patton’s rapidly advancing Third Army had reached Le Mans but were short of supplies. They needed 30,000 tons of fuel and ammunition – 30 trainloads – by midnight on Tuesday, Aug. 15.

Patton said his men could do without food. But tanks and trucks do not run without gas. And few enemy troops fear artillery and guns that lack bullets and shells.

Halting the attack was unthinkable. German forces could regroup, fortify Paris, build defensive lines and slow future assaults.

Itschner did what a true supply chain leader should. He reconnoitered the area by air and pored over photographs. He decided to concentrate his resources on a smaller branch line instead of a main line that had two blown bridges.

Then he deployed more than 10,000 people to create a miracle of military logistics. They worked around the clock to repair more than 100 miles worth of rail segments, rebuild bridges, fill craters and reform railbeds.

Three days later, the first train arrived in Le Mans. Initially, their only signaling came from GIs holding up cigarette lighters in the dark. And at first, the stationmaster refused to believe the train had come from Cherbourg.

Fueled by the engineering miracle, Patton’s troops rolled into Paris Aug. 25.

From the Outset, Operational Plans Paid Attention to Military Logistics

Beyond the track to Le Mans, 50,000 British and American troops rebuilt and operated railways all across France after D-Day.

They worked in dangerous conditions. Wartime safety standards were lax. Snipers and female spies targeted the troops. Hastily built “Austerity” class locomotive engines suffered occasional boiler explosions, some causing fatalities.

The perils were worth it, though. Trucks just could not do the job. A handful of men operating one train could carry cargo equivalent to dozens of trucks. And trains require less fuel.

That’s why Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower prioritized moving rail equipment and railway supplies across the English Channel.

Bombers had spent months destroying rail lines to prevent Germans from reinforcing the Normandy beaches. So after D-Day, railway personnel started reconnoitering the destroyed lines. They were intent on figuring out how to bring them back into supply chain operations when the Allies advanced.

Over the next few months, they resurrected railways to support Allied forces on their drive through northern France, Belgium, Holland and Nazi Germany. For a brief time, Wolmar writes, they operated the largest railway service in the world.

Strategic Supply Chains Win – in Business and War

Now let me engage in one of the freedoms that World War II soldiers and supply chain pros suffered so much for: Free speech.

The terms “supply chain and logistics” still do not get enough respect.

The business world itself didn’t even use the term logistics until the latter part of the 20th century. Back when I was studying industrial engineering at Purdue University, we called it “industrial distribution.” And supply chain didn’t come into vogue until the 1990s.

That’s why I love it when academic research, books and studies highlight the importance of supply chain throughout history. Whether they’re dealing with the Bronze Age collapse, the fall of Rome or victory in the European theater of World War II.

And while Wolmar brings light to neglected history, his story in The Telegraph mentions the term “supply chain” once.

And while his subtitle rightly mentions “American engineering and ingenuity,” it really ought to mention “supply chain pros” and “supply chain leaders.” Because that’s what we’re talking about.

The engineers, locomotive drivers, track workers, conductors, porters, signalmen and engine cleaners were all part of a vast, end-to-end supply chain. That supply chain stretched back to the U.S. industrial base. U.S. raw material dominance fueled that industrial base.

In fact, according to Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman, U.S. factories produced two-thirds of the armaments the Allies used to win World War II.

Decades ago, Gen. Robert H. Barrow said, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” The former Marine Corps commander was right. Armies and navies can’t operate without food, fuel, ammunition, footwear, clothing and other essential supplies.

So, it’s not a stretch to say that Allied supply chains won World War II. Strategic supply chain operations are crucial for successful military operations. Supply chain resilience usually equals victory.

It’s Time to Remember the Unsung Heroes

Most stories that focus on post-D-Day logistics focus on trucking. The famed “Red Ball Express” has been lauded here, here and elsewhere.

And they deserve their fame. But they were a stopgap to functioning railroads. Although both were important parts of the sprawling supply chains that fed the Allied war machine.

I hope Wolmar’s book brings these thousands of rail engineers and troops the recognition they deserve. Their Herculean logistical efforts made victory possible.